from Peter Radford
Some things get too expensive. When they do, people tend to buy less. Duh. This quite simple and intuitive observation sits at the heart of all that fancy math we call economics. We don’t need the math to understand the relationship between the cost of, and the demand for, something, but having lots of complicated looking equations gives us comfort: there is a universal law lurking in the intuition. With exceptions of course. This is, after all, economics. There are always exceptions.
One of the things that is getting too expensive, if it hasn’t already arrived there, is higher education. The cost of going to college is becoming prohibitive. Sooner or later the cost of college will cut into the demand for education.
Just as it ought.
In our contemporary economy we are accustomed to being told that ever higher levels of education are not just desirable, but they are essential. One idea endlessly tossed about, especially on the right in politics, is that our workers are insufficiently skilled to compete with their foreign peers, and so the nation is at risk of losing its competitive edge. This is then twisted into the follow-up idea that we need a higher percentage of our population at college.
But what happens when we arrive at saturation? What is saturation? What is the value of a college degree when everyone, or nearly everyone, has one? Do we all then need to go on and get a post-graduate education? And once we all have PhD’s, then what?
Clearly there is something amiss in the thinking.
Getting the general level of education higher has long been a goal of industrial nations. After all, modern industrial economies need armies of numerate and literate workers to provide it with a workforce.
Is this also true in a post-industrial economy?
Is there the same urgency to ensure a steady stream of educated workers for the capitalist mill nowadays when even our largest and most successful technology companies employ mere handfuls of people rather than the ten or even hundreds of thousands of their industrial predecessors?
It seems to me that the answer is no: the urgency is gone. Except, of course, for the need to provide all those techies who clutter up places like Silicon valley.
So what happens to college education?
In a post-industrial world we ought to value education for itself rather than as a gateway to employment. Yet after decades of being told that an education is essential as a way to financial security our students look at education through the prism of cost-benefit analysis. I don’t blame them. With even a mediocre college now feeling free to charge tens of thousands of dollars per semester, it is entirely reasonable for students to calculate the worth of an education in terms of future remuneration and payback. It is also entirely unreasonable for educators to raise a hue and cry when they are subjected to such analysis. They, after all, were only too happy to ride the surge in demand. So if they now appear to be sitting on an insufferably bloated and expensive production process they need to educate themselves on how to deal with it.
It seems more than a little hypocritical for educators to moan about being looked at through that cost-benefit prism now that they are ludicrously over-priced, when a few years back they were only too happy to tout the ‘value’ of education.
Yes, I now that ‘value’ is a slippery word. In a neoliberal world it has one meaning: cash. In a more balanced world it could mean something else: personal enrichment creates value and, dare I say it, ‘utility’, not easily captured within the matrix of economics.
Ah, economics. Look how it has spread its simplistic tentacles everywhere. By colonizing our political and social discourse and corrupting everything around it, economics has debased even education. It has brought its method, and cost-benefit along with it, to enforce its own version of ‘rigor’. And this rigor is now telling us that the ‘value’ of an education is measured in future earnings. The logical extension of this rigor is that an education in subjects of less use to the economy is, obviously, worth less too. Obviously.
It’s intuitive, right?
Which brings me back to the cost of education.
If the suppliers of education want to attract buyers – let’s keep the framing of the discussion within that of economics – then they have to price accordingly. And the buyers, if they want to keep on buying something that has diminished remunerative value in the future, but lots and lots of ‘personal value’, have to undertake the same analysis.
All that is going on is the return of certain forms of education back to their original status: as a luxury item for a those who see ‘value’ in polite discourse, knowledge of the classics, rhetoric, and the other accoutrement of polite society. And, like a lot of luxury items, the perception of value will only rise as the cost increases and makes the purchase more prohibitive and the exclusive domain of the few.
Now, I understand that a lot of educators think the picture I just painted is an abomination.
My response to them is simple: cut costs. Make education affordable. Make it so that is does not become a luxury or exclusive product consumed only by the privileged.
It is one thing to assert that education is not an ‘industry’ or that it ought not be subject to cost-benefit analysis. It is another to look in the mirror and wonder whether you contributed to the change you decry.