A Bi-Polar Report on ‘Laggard’ Public Colleges

Right now, the biggest news in higher education is a controversial paper from Dimitrios Halikias and Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution, arguing that “the upper middle class is substantially over-represented” in America’s universities, that “public investment…too often fails to produce either social mobility or socially beneficial research,” and that “the significant public subsidies spent on the education of the relatively affluent could be better spent elsewhere.”

The report, “Ladders, Labs or Laggards? Which Public Universities Contribute Most?” argues that the upper middle class is impeding the rise of less well-off Americans. It is amplified in Reeves’ recent book, Dream Hoarders, and by a New York Times column last week by David Brooks agreeing that “we in the educated class have created barriers to mobility” blocking the rise of the less well-off.

Too Focused on Economic Mobility?

Many of us in the field will accept the basic argument. For years, I have complained that we devote huge subsidies to support the comparative affluent students who dominate most American schools, individuals who in an earlier, poorer age, largely supported themselves. I have railed against “academic gated communities” that work to create a new sort of credentialed aristocracy inconsistent with the American Dream or the country described beautifully by Alexis de Tocqueville nearly two centuries ago. And I have questioned vacuous academic research, arguing that we are “overinvested” in higher education – meaning, to me, that we should reduce public support. With all of these points, there is solid supporting empirical evidence.

But then the authors go astray and their report turns bipolar. To them (neither of whom attended American state universities, one graduating from Oxford and the other Yale) the leading purposes of public institutions are “serving as engines of social mobility and producing world-class research.” Is that the core of what higher education does? What about diffusing knowledge and promoting wisdom, character building and leadership? And, as Robert Samuelson points out in discussing the Reeves book in the Washington Post, there is still a great deal of income mobility in America.

How Important Is Most Research?

To Halikias and Reeves, a school is a “laggard” if it is not top flight in research. Yet research prowess is defined by a crude Carnegie classification system that evaluates schools on research inputs (what it spends) and on the number of graduate students. According to these criteria, a dollar spent on research is better than a dollar spent on instruction; a graduate student admitted is good, an undergraduate is a dubious loss leader, at best a cash cow to subsidize more important graduate students, many of whom someday will publish articles for the Journal of Last Resort or its equivalent, read or cited by very few if any scholars.

Moreover, the authors decided to ignore private schools –the purest bastions of academic privilege for the affluent, many of which are indirectly governmentally subsidized as much or more than so-called “state” universities—why? Similarly, the authors arbitrarily exclude the nation’s historically black colleges and universities — they have a “specialized” mission, we are told. But they also have large numbers of low-income students, and the accessibility of American schools by poor persons was a central issue to the authors.

We are told the 342 schools sampled were “selective” admissions schools, a somewhat dubious categorization for many sampled universities where relatively few students are rejected for admission (e.g., University of South Alabama, Youngstown State University, University of Texas at El Paso).

Only 70 schools, 20 percent of the sample, were cited as  the “leaders” in higher education (having high-income mobility among the students, along with high levels of research among the faculty). I took six schools from the top 20 on that list: the University of Texas at El Paso, the University of New Orleans, the University of Texas at San Antonio, Wayne State University, the University of South Alabama and Cleveland State University. Using data from the U.S. Department of Education website College Scorecard, I observed that at all of these schools, a large majority (over 60 percent) of full-time students failed to graduate in six years –well above the national average. These “leaders” did not do what many of us consider Job One: graduate entering students.

A decidedly alternative interpretation: many schools prey upon the poor and academically unprepared: they admit them, telling them college is a ticket to a better, solidly middle-class life, knowing full well that most of them will fail to graduate –but will incur large student loan debts (at “leader” Wayne State, over 60 percent of students who borrowed had failed to pay at least one dollar of their student loans back –three years after attending). Yet these schools sucker academics of the Thomas Piketty perspective into believing they are “leaders” in the quest for intergenerational income mobility. A better than decent case can be made that some of the Halikias-Reeves “leader” universities should actually die: their social costs exceed the social benefits.

A good case can be made that progressive public policies have created much of the problem that the Brookings researchers lament. A third of a century ago, Charles Murray showed how generous entitlement policies of the federal government created a relatively permanent underclass of poor people who have lost the incentives and will to work and learn, qualities transmitted to their children. Teachers unions finance leftish politicians and their big spending, accompanied by their opposition to school competition, merit pay, and parental choice. All this has contributed mightily to the genuinely awful schools that dominate most inner cities inhabited by a large portion of the nation’s poor.

A Plug  for Vocational Education

The authors at one point do make one sensible suggestion: many students might benefit from vocationally oriented schooling that does not result in a four-year degree. The probability of completing that type of education is probably greater, costs are lower, and earnings of, say, plumbers, welders, or drivers of large trucks tend to compare favorably with those with B.A. degrees in gender studies from some obscure state school.

Universities were created mainly to create and disseminate knowledge and ideas. The case for public subsidy of them typically assumes that universities have enormous positive externalities (good spillover effects) and/or promote economic opportunity and income mobility. Frankly, I think the positive externality argument is more an article of faith than an empirical reality. And I think Halikias and Reeves are right that college does not promote income mobility –look at rising income inequality in the decades since higher education spread to the masses. So to me, the question is: why do we continue to publicly subsidize colleges?

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