The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Blues Missing the Mark on Higher Ed Reform

Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has a wide-ranging piece in the New York Times addressing the problem of income inequality in America, arguing that the U.S. is actually falling behind the rest of the developing world when it comes to social mobility. The piece touches on many issues, but the most interesting parts to us are his comments about how skyrocketing higher-ed costs are depressing upward mobility for the nation’s poor:

Unless current trends in education are reversed, the situation is likely to get even worse. In some cases it seems as if policy has actually been designed to reduce opportunity: government support for many state schools has been steadily gutted over the last few decades—and especially in the last few years. Meanwhile, students are crushed by giant student loan debts that are almost impossible to discharge, even in bankruptcy. This is happening at the same time that a college education is more important than ever for getting a good job.

Young people from families of modest means face a Catch-22: without a college education, they are condemned to a life of poor prospects; with a college education, they may be condemned to a lifetime of living at the brink. And increasingly even a college degree isn’t enough; one needs either a graduate degree or a series of (often unpaid) internships. Those at the top have the connections and social capital to get those opportunities. Those in the middle and bottom don’t. The point is that no one makes it on his or her own. And those at the top get more help from their families than do those lower down on the ladder. Government should help to level the playing field.

As time goes on, we’re seeing a growing consensus of the left, right and center that something is seriously wrong with our higher education system. But while Stiglitz gets the problem right, his solution, that government should be responsible for “leveling the playing field,” leaves much to be desired.

What we’re seeing here is a classic example of what’s good and what’s bad about a “blue boilerplate” approach to a social issue. The good part is that Stiglitz really is concerned, as all serious people should be, about how to ensure that Americans from lower income backgrounds have real opportunities to advance themselves. And he’s certainly right to see the high cost of college education as a barrier.

But when it comes to solutions, the blue blinkers are on. Stiglitz sees a world in which pumping more government money into a dysfunctional system is the only solution to higher ed’s woes. We aren’t opposed in principle to government support for higher-ed; we don’t burn votive candles before an alabaster statue of Ayn Rand here at Via Meadia. But we think that the fierce conservatism that leads people like Stiglitz to cling desperately to current institutional realities has more to do with class interest and lack of imagination than with actually helping the poor.

Higher ed doesn’t just need money; it needs deep and wide-ranging reform. The ever-proliferating ranks of administrators peppering each other’s in-boxes with emails all the live long day, endless federal mandates piled on without any consideration of cost, the radical disconnect between the priorities of tenured faculty and the needs of undergraduates, the emphasis on students’ “time served” rather than “stuff learned”—all these make college not only more expensive than it needs to be but more unwelcoming to the needs of low income students.

The single mother trying to improve her prospects by getting a degree might benefit more from a video course she can take on her own time—plus an on-call tutor who can meet with her either in person or online—than from the classical higher ed model.

Too many American debates are between true blues who want to shovel more money into badly designed institutions and grim reds who are more focused on cutting costs than on getting the important jobs done. Both sides need to take their blinkers off and begin thinking creatively about new solutions.

Published on February 18, 2013 5:00 pm