The Core Value of Higher Education Is Money?


For many economists, the big point about the current higher education bubble is that it deserves to burst.  College education is overpriced because colleges have been getting away with charging students for amenities that have little or nothing to do with real education.  The list of amenities is long, with a lot of disagreement on which are most costly and pointless.  The two most obvious culprits are the burgeoning number of overpaid and self-indulgent administrators overseeing educationally irrelevant enterprises and concerns and the overpaid, self-indulgent, and underworked faculty.  The administrators, of course, blame the faculty, and the faculty the administrators.  The administrators create more bureaucratic bloat by insisting, through their organizations and accrediting associations, that educational outcomes be more rigorously assessed, and faculty respond that all the assessment baloney does little more than annoyingly take time away from their real jobs.

There is, in truth, little confidence in administrator-driven educational assessment. As nearly everyone knows, “assessment mania” originated in schools of education, which are not known as centers of excellence or even effectiveness.  For another, assessment rarely presents itself as aiming to remedy “grade inflation,” which is so often pointed to as evidence of higher education’s declining rigor or basic quality control.  Assessment is usually tied to “competencies.”  To be competent in this or that skill is be “good enough.”  And those in the know realize that “competency-based grading” is behind the spectacularly high grades given to students in schools of education for decades now.  “Good enough” in a variety of skills equals an A.  A focus on measuring competence might mean that we can show no student has been left behind, but it might also be at the expense of cultivating or recognizing excellence.  That, of course, is the criticism so many high-school teachers have of the whole No Child Left Behind and similar standardized assessment initiatives.

Hobbes Had a Point

There’s no evidence that assessment, accreditation, certification and all that have functioned as adequate quality-control devices, and there really is some evidence  that their success has been at the expense of liberal education– the flourishing of the arts and sciences as the core of higher education.  The various assessment initiatives have done nothing to make our best colleges better, and their burdensome and relatively irrelevant requirements and the bureaucratic positions and attitudes they engender may have made them worse.

Our economists, having nothing invested in academic administration, teacher certification, or even liberal-arts education, offer a relatively disinterested solution.   For a libertarian (or very consistent) economist, the only uncontroversial standard of evaluation is money.  As Hobbes so candidly said, “The Value or WORTH of a man, is as of all things, his Price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his Power.”  That means, of course, that the value of education is in how much it increases an individual’s value, meaning the price he can command for his skills.  So economists note that educators sometimes talk about the “value added” to a person by education, but educators usually don’t talk rigorously enough about what is added.  Those who really care about human dignity and such should aim at making individuals worth more in the competitive marketplace that is life.

So the only uncontroversial measurement of the value of education is the pay of the jobs students get as a result of it.  This economists’ view, of course, has been recently vigorously endorsed by many of our Republican and libertarian politicians–such as Rep. Eric Cantor and the Republican governors of Texas (Rick Perry and his libertarian or “public policy” staff are the pathfinders here), Florida, and North Carolina.  But we can also see a soft version of it in even our progressive president’s State of the Union address.  The governors have demanded that state universities by assessed by their graduates’ employment statistics.  And those statistics will be the evidence that show us the courses of studies that are genuinely productive or power-generating and those that are relatively worthless.

Deliver Education at Lower Cost

Another way of increasing the value of education, of course, is lowering its price.  That’s done, of course, by stripping away those features of the product that are worthless.  Higher education should be all about helping students raise their monetary value.  And professors should be paid according to the effective help they give.  The professor’s self-indulgent view of human dignity or the meaning of life or his or her vocation should have nothing to do with how much he or she is paid.  And if there are better ways of delivering valuable skills than with tenured professors in face-to-face classrooms, then let’s use them.

So the governors of Texas and North Carolina, in particular, promise to help burst the higher-educational bubble by delivering a more valuable product at a very low cost to students at their state colleges and universities.  Those features of education that don’t increase a student’s value–such as literature or philosophy or art or gender studies or whatever–have every right to exist, but only as hobbies that students can pursue for free in their free time. Or it might be the case that the study of history or philosophy does lead to marketable skills such as critical thinking or effective communication, but the relevant professors should be held valuable or paid on that basis alone.  It’s certainly a scandal that so many professors are now paid so much to spout drivel that’s nothing more than their personal opinions.

Now I quoted Hobbes to remind you that this vulgar or productivity-driven view of being human, and so of higher education, has been around for centuries.  And  Tocqueville said that this middle-class view of education–education of people who love money and have to earn it for themselves–is characteristically American, and he used it to explain why he found almost no genuinely higher education in America.  The question for us is why this middle-class tendency has suddenly become more insistent than ever.

Are Values Just Personal Whims?

One reason, of course, is our professors and other experts or say that there’s more to life–to human dignity and such–than money have less confidence and are more confused than ever.  One sign of the confusion is the pervasive “relativism,” which leads to the conclusion that “values” that have no cash value are nothing more than personal whims or arbitrary social constructions.  Our confusion is also displayed in our celebration of “diversity,” which becomes a kind of openness to everything that refuses, in the name of avoiding oppression, to rank anything according to some common conception of the human good.  Our professors in the “humanities” no longer believe they have the warrant to tell students who they are and what they’re supposed to do.  But in a middle-class country it remains true that they need money to do whatever they randomly choose to do on their own.

The reason Hobbes reduced value to price is to end the controversies that produced endless chatter among philosophers and acrimonious disputes among theologians.  Controversies over the soul that lead to waste of blood and treasure are replaced by a kind of techno-agreement that leads to the prosperity we can all enjoy.  From the point of view of the economists, our colleges and universities are unproductive “bubbles”–or artificial environments insulated from the competitive marketplace that is the real word.  And it’s the catering of the illusions of living in a “bubble” that is the real cause of the cost bubble itself.

Peter Augustine Lawler

Peter Augustine Lawler

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College.

One thought on “The Core Value of Higher Education Is Money?”

  1. Why economists, of all people, are questioned here, is beyond me. Economics is about efficiency, and nothing else. Deliver what people want at least cost.
    Perfectly pedestrian economic criticisms of the current structure of US higher education are
    -it is a government sponsored cartel, via accreditation;
    -government forbids the use of alternative credentials;
    -it is subsidized by government without regard to cost effectiveness;
    -all this allows insiders to hijack the curriculum;
    -all this allows higher ed institutions to lie about the value of their degrees, economically, intellectually, and aesthetically.
    All that an economist says boils down to “the Emperor has no Clothes”. It is absolutely true that nobody wants to hear this. Just as no one wishes to be told they have just bought a fake masterpiece painting.

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