Thursday, September 2, 2010

Patriotism and college sticker prices

A Boston Globe editorial writer bemoans the high sticker price of top four-year colleges, calling it unpatriotic.

My thoughts:

1. A sure way to reduce the quality of thinking on any topic, and thus the resulting policy outcome, is to wheel in patriotism or, as Obama does, morality, in place of data, analysis and clear thinking. Indeed, the arrival of such concepts in a discussion is usually, as in this instance, a signal that the person who raises them does not know what they are talking about.

2. The figures the editorial cites on the fraction of high school graduates starting college refer to both 2-year and 4-year schools. Two-year schools are highly subsidized and unlikely to generate large debt loads. And many of those who start at 4-year schools will do only a year or two, and drop out after learning, perhaps, that college is not a good match for the interests and talents. These students will not end up with huge debt loads either. As such it is hard to see the basis for the claim that "most of these students are also guaranteed unprecedented debt burdens no matter their final GPA".

3. Next up, the editorial recounts the high sticker prices at some top schools, without noting that almost no one actually pays these prices. The main effect of such lists, and indeed of editorials like this more generally, may be to deter bright students from low income families for even attempting to apply to a top school, even though it might well be cheaper for them, after financial aid is taken into account, than attending a mediocre state school without financial aid. Indeed, editorials like this might even discourage such students from applying to a 4-year college at all.

4. Implicit in the editorial is the view that everyone should get a 4-year degree. This is simply false, in addition to being very silly.

5. It is not clear what the editorial writer would have state universities do in the face of cuts in their state approprirations other than raising tuition. Should they lay people off so that he could write an editorial about how they do not have a conscience because they lay people off? Should they cut salaries and watch their best faculty depart for schools in other states? Should they run down their endowments, if they even have them?

There are many serious and reasonable things one could say about the current organization of post-secondary education in the US, but this editorial studiously avoids saying them.

This one gets an F.

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