In a column yesterday, Tim Harford asks “are universities worth it?“. Surely a topic worth discussing. Yet there is an asymmetry in Harford’s summary of the debate. While Harford explicitly considers not just money but also time and intellectual resources as opportunity costs of running higher education, his taxonomy of the benefits is restricted to the financial.
Following up on my post from yesterday about higher education funding, I’d like to discuss this article from William G. Bowen and Michael S. McPherson from last week at Vox. I think it is quite representative of the wonky, centrist view—dare I say consensus—that casts the student pays model as a self-evidently “right” approach.
There are many illuminating points in the article. In particular I am quite receptive to their “proposals for reform”: briefly, work to improve graduation rates, reform PhD programs to reduce the oversupply of PhDs relative to academic jobs, professionalize teaching faculty to address the outrageous reliance on mistreated adjunct faculty, and consolidate some small colleges to avoid costly duplication of administrative spending. I think these are excellent starting points for a healthy debate.
But nevertheless I would like to strongly object to the characterization of the funding debate that runs through the first half of the article. I’ll pull a few excerpts that I believe get it wrong on the student pays versus society pays debate.