From National Review.
May 17, 1999.
HOLDEN CAULFIELD once pointed out that Pencey Prep's claim that "since 1888 we have been molding boys into splendid, clear-thinking young men" was "strictly for the birds," since "I didn't know anybody there that was splendid and clear-thinking and all. Maybe two guys. If that many. And they probably came to Pencey that way." Then as now those who spend a lot of money for educational prestige don't really require the splendidness and clear thinking as advertised. They know that what they learn at places like Pencey will matter far less than the fact that they have been there. But what has always been true for the educational elites is now true for the prestige-seeking masses. Nowadays, even quite humble state universities are selling prestige - — not the prestige of brand-name institutions but the generic prestige given by our credential- obsessed culture simply associated with having been to "college."
Now that even many unskilled, entry-level jobs require a college degree, while a high-school diploma does not even guarantee basic literacy, this qualification is a sort of passport to white- collar status — and to cold, hard cash. In 1997, for example, the average college graduate earned $40,478 while the average high-school graduate earned only $22,895. And the value of a college education is continuing to increase. Degree-holders can now expect to earn 76 percent more than those without a degree, whereas in 1975 the difference between their respective earnings prospects was only 57 percent. High-school graduates in 1975 could expect to earn 92 percent of the average wage; now that figure is only 77 percent.
Hardly surprising then that in 1996, 27 percent of the college-age population was attending college, whereas in 1975 only 20 percent was. The more people go, the more they think they have to go. But does a university degree amount to anything more than an essential line on a résumé? Does it imply any substantive attainment whatsoever? In a study of the available data on this question in the journal Academic Questions, Daniel Casse and Bruno V Manno note that "the population that graduates from two-year and four-year postsecondary institutions may be self- selecting. It may be the subset of the population that, prior to any college experience, already possesses higher literacy levels and the requisite skills to obtain more lucrative employment . . . Compared to children who do not attend college, those who subsequently graduate from college come from wealthier homes, have more highly educated parents, and demonstrate stronger math and verbal skills before they receive any postsecondary training." In other words, like the one or two splendid and clear-thinking boys at Pencey Prep, they probably came there that way. As Edwin S. Rubenstein of the Hudson Institute argues, the studies that seem to suggest a huge gap between college-educated and high-school-educated wage earners do not control for the different socioeconomic backgrounds and IQs of the two groups.
Studies that do control for these factors indicate that the value added by college itself is only about 15 percent. But the illusion of "lucrative employment" to be won by a college education leads students into ruinous debt and devalues their education still further by attracting far too many unqualified students into higher education, so feeding the vicious cycle by which "college" comes to seem a necessity when it manifestly is not.
Naturally the Clinton administration, which justly regards the professoriat as one of its most loyal constituencies, is encouraging this misuse of social resources with more money for higher education in the form of the president's signature "Hope" scholarships. These amount to $1,500 in tax credits for the first two years of higher education, but their real effect was indicated when Richard Riley, the secretary of education, recently wrote to university heads asking them not to take the opportunity of the new money available to raise tuitions. Of course that is exactly what they will do and are doing already. California, which enacted a tuition cut last year, is now set to raise its rates again so as to "increase the effective federal subsidy of California's higher education programs."
As the Wall Street Journal points out, public universities like those in California would be foolish to charge less than the $2,000 that allows them to take full advantage of the amount of free money provided by the government. (The scholarship covers 100 percent of the first $1,000 of tuition and 50 percent of the second $1,000.) Yet this gift from the Treasury to mainly Democratic and often radically left-wing academics is politically foolproof, since college-educated but dim-witted soccer moms, convinced that their children face a choice between college and the gutter, continue to believe that they have received a benefit from their president in Washington. It is hard to tell which is more impressive, the political elegance of the program or its moral cynicism.
Can people ever be disabused of the notion that they are actually getting something valuable for the vast sums they spend on higher education? So far it seems not. College admissions officers are beating the applicants off with sticks.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, at colleges across the country dormitories are full and the overflow are being packed into hotels — and this at a time when tuition costs are increasing at more than double the rate of inflation. In fact, according to Richard Vedder, professor of economics at Ohio University, "In the past decade and a half, tuition costs have increased 195.3 percent while the overall consumer price index has risen just 63.3 percent." In other words, students are paying more and getting less for their money.
This is only what should be expected when demand is so heavy, but surely eventually even those whose brains have been ruined by American higher education must catch on? When the news came out last October that tuition costs had risen by 4 percent in the previous year, two and a half times the rate of inflation, the universities scarcely even bothered to try to justify the increase. George Rupp, president of Columbia University, told the New York Times that one reason was "updating dormitories and dining halls to keep up with the demands of students and their parents for standards that increasingly seek to match those of hotels and restaurants."
Likewise, E. Gordon Gee, president of Brown, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that "college costs had outpaced the C.P.I. in part because colleges were giving raises in excess of inflation to keep valued employees." But this explanation, like that of President Rupp, simply means that there is more money in the system coming from increased government aid and higher tuition, so that the colleges are getting into a bidding war with each other for students and valued faculty. Money is also coming from the rising stock market, which was responsible for an average growth in the ten largest university endowments of an average of 15 per cent in the last year for which figures are available. As a result, the New York Times reported, "Financial aid packages are being sweetened. Faculty members are getting more money for research. Academic initiatives are bursting forth, frequently with new laboratories or classrooms."
The most scandalous source of the cash in which the system is awash comes from the debt students are pathetically eager to incur in order to go to "college." As tuitions are increasing, most financial aid now comes in the form of loans, and increasingly unsubsidized ones. Loans are now 60 percent of financial aid where twenty years ago they were about 40 percent. This means that the universities are putting the squeeze on their cash cow — the thing that is responsible for the explosion in college costs over the last quarter-century, namely the realization in the 1970s that the qualification they were offering had become so valuable that students were willing to take out a lien on their futures to get it. The universities didn't have to hike tuition at all. They did so because the suckers keep coming, even at the higher prices.
Worst of all, perhaps, is that the more people are pitchforked into higher education for economic and social rather than for educational reasons, the more lower education can get away with not doing.
Already, remedial education is a huge part of the college curriculum, even at many elite institutions. If you add in the stuff that is not called remedial but would have been covered already if public high schools were doing an even adequate job, you begin to realize that, in substance, what people are willing to pay so highly for is mostly only what they have already paid for (though not received) through local property taxes devoted to education.
What a racket! Conservatives should lead the way in calling attention to it, in hiring those who have the courage and good sense to stay out of college, and in fighting every attempt, public or private, to put more money in the hands of the education establishment.