We Shouldn’t Settle for the Status Quo of Higher Education

Policy arguments are usually pretty easy to predict. So when Hillary Clinton unveiled her proposal to solve the college cost conundrum I could see the arguments that both sides would make. Liberals would argue that the plan didn’t go far enough because she didn’t promise to make college “free,” just make it easier for students to graduate “debt free.” Conservatives would argue that there is nothing “debt free” about a $350 billion plan that eliminated any incentive for colleges to be cost conscious.

But what I never would have predicted, at least from someone other than a college administrator, is a defense of rising college costs. Lauren Tara LaCapra writes for Fusion:

While some of the rise in college costs is due to flagrant spending on rock-climbing walls, stadiums and rock-star professors, the bulk of it comes from economic factors that have simply made running a school expensive.

For one thing, while certain businesses can automate functions or run a leaner ship to cut costs, the very nature of education relies heavily on human beings. And those workers aren’t able to get any more productive than they already are, even as demand for their service increases. The core problem: more students are seeking degrees, even as the experts in any given field can only teach so many classes, grade so many papers.

Making matters worse, those who teach the most in-demand subjects tend to be able to earn more outside academia. Why should a lawyer, banker, technologist, or medical expert toil away teaching at a community college, state school, or even a well-endowed university, when she can work for an industry and make millions?

Another issue is that public colleges and universities are playing catch-up with maintenance of aging infrastructure, as well as investments in technology. Visible expenditures might be big, but the invisible ones are much bigger

The result, LaCapra argues, is that Clinton’s plan may indeed encourage colleges to cut costs, “but it’s not clear that they’ll be able to do that without hurting educational outcomes.”

What LaCapra seems to miss is that this is not a critique of Clinton’s plan so much as it is the status quo of higher education. The college model is little changed since the 1700s. It generally involves an old stuffy professor standing in an old brick building delivering a lecture he’s given dozens of times before. It’s tended to work pretty well. Our higher education system serves as a model for the rest of the world and remains a destination for the children of the world’s elite.

But is it the best way to deliver a higher education today? Doubtful, at least for an enormous portion of students in search of an affordable, quality option. Those students are largely ignored in the current system. They are either shuffled off to college, where they may enjoy the new climbing wall, but will inevitably struggle to afford their student loan debt, or they make due at a community college, which either produces degrees that many employers don’t understand or dumps students back into a four-year school with the attendant expenses.

Technology has the power to change that. It has revolutionized nearly every aspect of our world, yet the closest it’s come to transforming the college experience is assisting students with note-taking. The possibilities are really endless. Technology allows us to have the foremost expert on a subject teaching thousands of students through online lectures. It allows students to learn at the their own pace and test out of subjects they’ve already mastered. It allows consumers to shop around for college credits from many different sources and build a custom education. It allows teachers to not have to make the decision between their love of teaching and the draw of private sector pay. And it can do all that at a fraction of the cost of a traditional higher education because it has no vast system of bricks and mortar, no need to subsidize its nonexistent sports teams, no fancy gyms, or gourmet dining halls.

There is no doubt that some students will still consider all of that part and parcel of the “college experience,” but at least we will allow families the ability to make a decision on cost without necessarily compromising quality.

The loss of that potential innovation is the main flaw of Clinton’s plan. By investing so much money in status quo institutions, Clinton ensures the system won’t change. Oddly enough, that’s the one part of the plan that LaCapra does like.

“Sensibly, Clinton’s plan mostly concentrated on reducing costs at existing colleges, rather than pushing techno-utopian solutions such as [Massive Open Online Courses,” LaCapra writes.

Frankly, we’ll take our “techno-utopian solutions” over her “regresso-Luddite defensiveness” any day of the week