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Too expensive?

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.

  1. Tom Welsh
    April 25, 2016 at 1:24 pm

    “Except, of course, for the need to provide all those techies who clutter up places like Silicon [V]alley”.

    No need to look down your nose at “techies”. Unlike economists, they do at least make something that is usually useful.

  2. Tom Welsh
    April 25, 2016 at 1:29 pm

    What is desperately needed is, not fancy college courses, but good solid basic education (such as was often provided in ordinary schools in the 19th century). Every child of ten could effortlessly recite the multiplication tables – what’s more, up to at least 20 times 20. Now that is useful. They learned a great deal about history, geography, mathematics, science, and foreign languages. They could all speak and write grammatically, and had good working vocabularies. None of those ten-year-olds would ever have dreamed of writing “reticent” when he meant “reluctant”, as I saw a professor do earlier today.

    Logic is also well worth learning, and rhetoric:

    “Gentlemen, you are now about to embark on a course of studies which will occupy you for two years. Together, they form a noble adventure. But I would like to remind you of an important point. Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life, save only this, that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education”.

    – John Alexander Smith, Professor of Moral Philosophy, Oxford University, 1914.

  3. April 25, 2016 at 1:35 pm

    This argument could have been made 100 years ago when my father went to a school with only six grades. He completed four before stopping to assist the family. In my time it was eleven years of public education, then twelve as it is now. I think the body of knowledge available for study and social/economic demands fully justify expanding public education to K-16.

  4. Bob
    April 25, 2016 at 4:06 pm

    First education has become to efficient in their head long rush they are replacing essays and projects that require assimilation of information with true and false questions that only require recognizing a correct answer when it is right in front of you.
    In the few cases where assimilation is tested it is only in the final year thereby filling classes with people who will never add creativity to the work force and dragging down the expectations of all.
    The educations system needs reform.
    Yes we need it.
    Jobs that require little training have been off shored. A great many jobs that require moderate training are facing the same fate.
    Creditation has become a gateway to exclude good people from entire classes of jobs.

  5. blocke the
    April 25, 2016 at 4:55 pm

    I live in Germany where what one studies is more important than where. This eliminates the expense of an educational system with places like Harvard, Stanford, Yale, MIT, Cambridge and Oxford, the grandes ecoles, etc. in them, because where one studies is essential to the arriving at the top in government and the private sector. My daughter studied in the regional universities, Giessen and Mainz at no cost to me or sense of inferiority in her. My son, however. studied in Trinity College Dublin which shares the prejudice of place of study being more important than what is being studied. In Germany 60% of secondary students do apprenticeships starting in their 10th year of education, that is they do not get university degrees. Doing an apprenticeship is a highly respected educational path.

  6. David Chester
    April 25, 2016 at 5:29 pm

    Education should come first. When poor Jewish immigrants landed in the US and worked in the sweat-shops of the New-York “smutter” (clothing) industry, in appalling conditions and ridiculous wages, they did it with one aim in mind–that their children could get a better education than they themselves had. The allowed themselves no luxuries, all funds for helping the kinder (children) get to college. It worked. Within one generation the Jews of New-York became some of the most successful business persons in that state.

  7. April 25, 2016 at 6:16 pm

    A secondary economic good of education is contribution to smaller family size.

    A proper education that includes understanding of consumption choices relative to environmental impacts and a healing planet thus leads to a gradual decline in population and could lead to reduced economic intensity per person.

    This is the outline of the only known path leading to a sustainable human culture and economy. It is a subject universally ignored in the study of economics.

  8. Paul Davidson
    April 25, 2016 at 8:54 pm

    why does every municipality in our country recognize that we provide free education to all up to grade 12? Is that not too expensive??

  9. April 26, 2016 at 5:40 am

    The discipline of economics is a typical social science, with one exception. It is based on the same set of assumptions as the other social sciences – human actions are part of nature, they obey natural laws of behavior, to understand these laws mathematics is essential, history is just the record of the playing out of these natural laws, and the purpose of social/behavioral sciences is to reveal, describe, understand, predict, and then control human behavior through these natural laws. And above all else the social sciences are ahistorical. They have no interest in and see no reason to study the “history” of anything, including humans. Rather the focus in on revealing and using the natural laws that govern human actions. Education in terms of schooling and universities has over the years, especially since WW2 been re-invented based on this social science model. Whether it’s the psychology of personality, the psychological needs of the young person, the stages of human physical and intellectual development. the social metrics of teaching and learning, the governance of learning institutions, or a thousand other “social science focused” educational building blocks American education after WW2 is unrecognizable in terms of the objectives and structures that guided the construction of US public schools in the 19th century. This might be viewed as all bad. But these changes did soften and expand the focus of US public schools and universities away from education just for industrial production and toward “human development” and enlightenment. This might be called a good result. But the changes also objectified students and learning. We see that ever more today in the battles over standardized testing, local control of K-12 education goals and organization, and the “behavioral” measurement of students and outcomes. I said economics is an exceptional social science in a single aspect. That aspect is that riding on the tale of operations research and digital technologies after WW2 economics made itself the optimizer and digitizer par excellence. Economists thus conned and connived their way to the top of the social science hierarchy. They sold themselves as the only group that could make your life perfect if you obeyed them and a misery if you disobeyed them. So the fact that the economists changed formal education (some would say corrupted) is really no surprise. The bigger question – now that we see economists can’t deliver on their promises how the hell do we tear down the very elaborate structures built on that foundation. The only events I can give as example of how wrenching that destruction is likely to be is the ending of the British Empire after WW2. That laid waste in the UK from 1945 to 1980. And then of course Maggie Thatcher made things even worse.

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