Why I Love, and Hate, American Higher Education

Today, the annual U.S. News and World Report “Best Colleges” guide came out, and as always it is a slightly celebratory occasion for me. Though I agree with many people who critique the guide for its debatable methodology and implicit assumption that all schools can be cleanly ranked from best to worst, the simple fact that the issue exists makes me happy. When you spend the bulk of your time analyzing moribund, monopolistic, K-12 schooling, it’s just refreshing to dive into an education ocean where guides are abundant because consumers have plentiful, powerful choice. It also doesn’t hurt that, in stark contrast to elementary and secondary schooling, the United States seems to be the envy of the world in higher ed.

Unfortunately, my higher ed enthusiasm always ebbs fast, and aggravation quickly slips in, because there is copious, taxpayer-funded rot under America’s abundant ivy. The reality is, while being much more dynamic and consumer-driven than socialized K-12 schooling isn’t a bad thing, it’s hardly a major accomplishment. And as a new report from the Goldwater Institute reminds me, while college students are empowered to choose, they are empowered with massive taxpayer subsidies, both in the form of aid directly to students and government funding directly to schools. The result is major, painful distortions of the market, including the ever-growing administrative bloat detailed in Goldwater’s new paper:

Between 1993 and 2007, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities grew by 39 percent, while the number of employees engaged in teaching, research or service only grew by 18 percent. Inflation-adjusted spending on administration per student increased by 61 percent during the same period, while instructional spending per student rose 39 percent.

So today, celebrate that we have a major sector of education that is at least partially market based. And then, like me, get aggravated by all the government funding and control that renders so much of it a waste.