Commentary Magazine


Re: Everyone, Back to School!

Abe Greenwald has commented on the “startling” nature of President Obama’s recent proposals on higher education.  This is a subject I’ve taken up on the Heritage Foundation’s Foundry blog, so if you’re interested, you can follow up on my analysis there.  But two supplementary points are worth making:

First, Abe’s quite right to point out the importance of leaving, and re-entering, school.  Obama’s call for the U.S. to “once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world” by 2020″ ignores the fact that, according to the OECD, we have the highest proportion already. We couple this with a higher than average drop-out rate for first-time degree seekers.  That may be what troubles Obama.

But it’s not a paradox: we have a high proportion of college graduates precisely because in the U.S. it’s easy to start school, drop out, move somewhere else, transfer credits, and resume your studies.  Having been involved in higher education in the U.S. for over twenty years, I’m aware of its flaws.  But the U.S. system is well adapted to the mobile, aspirational population of the country.  Obama’s goal of more college graduates sounds nice, but if it has the effect of reducing the flexibility of today’s system, it will end up making it harder to get through college.

Second, there’s what you might call the Media Studies problem.  Britain’s spent billions since 1999 trying to drive university enrollment rates higher: all it’s succeeded in doing is wasting money and creating an unprecedented flood of Media Studies and other phony majors.  Why?  Because, frankly, universities make a lot more money off of Media Studies than they do off chemistry, or even off the genuine humanities like history.

Sciences are expensive: they require lab space, lots of equipment, and faculty who have devoted years and years of their life to their own education.  Even history takes a big library and some costly archival research to do well.  But Media Studies and its ilk require few resources, and can be taught online by an ill-paid adjunct to “classes” of hundreds.  The profit potential from this kind of scam is limitless: the costs are paid by the state, and by the graduates who leave university with no real skills or job prospects.

That’s the kind of trap you fall into if, like Obama — and Tony Blair in 1999 — you set out to deliberately drive college attendance higher.  The universities game the system by directing the flood of subsidized students into the most profitable majors, and the people left holding the bag are the taxpayers and the embittered graduates.

Unless you want to exercise total control over all private universities — which is not something to mention in earshot of the administration, in case it gives them ideas — there’s no way to beat this problem.  The only way to win is by not playing the game of state subsidies to reach participation targets.