There are many things American higher ed does very well, but providing job-related training at a reasonable price isn’t one of them. The explosive growth of higher ed costs (driven by factors including administrative bloat and mission creep, government mandates, the guild system for faculty, and a fixation on the research university model) combined with the recession has brought the system to a point where the subject of radical change can no longer be avoided.
In a Sunday piece in the Washington Examiner, law professor Glenn Reynolds (better known in the blogosphere as the indefatigable Instapundit) makes some important points about how the system could change. Reynolds makes some thoughtful practical suggestions, and also gets right to the heart of a problem that goes farther than higher ed:
When you artificially pump up the supply of something (whether it’s currency or diplomas), the value drops. The reason why a bachelor’s degree on its own no longer conveys intelligence and capability is that the government decided that as many people as possible should have bachelor’s degrees.There’s something of a pattern here. The government decides to try to increase the middle class by subsidizing things that middle class people have: If middle class people go to college and own homes, then surely if more people go to college and own homes, we’ll have more middle class people.
But homeownership and college aren’t causes of middle-class status, they’re markers for possessing the kinds of traits — self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc. — that let you enter, and stay in, the middle class.
Subsidizing the markers doesn’t produce the traits; if anything, it undermines them. One might as well try to promote basketball skills by distributing expensive sneakers.
Professional basketball players have expensive sneakers, but — TV commercials notwithstanding — it’s not the shoes that make them good at dunking.
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