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(Partial) Book Review: Unprofitable Schooling

American higher education is more dysfunctional than I thought. Tuition costs and fees (adjusted for inflation) at public four-year colleges have skyrocketed over the past 30 years, but outcomes are, at best, stagnant if not declining. Students are encouraged to take out loans and other subsidies under the pretense it will make college more affordable, but then they struggle to pay the loans back and often find themselves drowning in debt.

A book I am in the process of reading is doing an exceptional job of explaining the dismal reality of higher education from the perspective of both economics and history. Unprofitable Schooling: Examining Causes of, and Fixes for, America’s Broken Ivory Tower edited by Todd Zywicki and Neal McCluskey assesses the state of higher education and by the end of the book, once I get to it, will leave us with a better understanding of how policy has contributed to our educational challenges and what can be done to fix a system gone awry.

I highly recommend (so far) Unprofitable Schooling to anyone interested in the history of higher education in America and its relationship with market competition in other sectors of the economy.

A sign of a healthy economy is the quality of products increasing while prices decrease. And while there is evidence of this all around us, it isn’t true with higher education.

Below are some key takeaways from what I have read thus far.

Higher education’s ballooning costs and declining returns

The first section of the book focuses on the history of for-profit colleges and public colleges and universities and the real winners of the Morrill Act.

It then describes the rise in government involvement and subsidies, stating that because the “magnitude of government resources used in American higher education has grown so large, diminishing returns to their use have set in….”

These diminishing returns include soaring tuition costs, underemployment problems for graduates, a decline in academic quality, and a fall in the proportion of students from lower-income backgrounds.

One reason the book gives for a decline in academic standards is federal student financial aid programs. While financial aid contributes to higher enrollments, it has led colleges to admit students that are not prepared to undertake and master rigorous, difficult concepts that historically distinguished higher education. Then you have a loosening in academic standards to prevent dropout rates and grade inflation. Financial aid programs also do not reward academic success and high performance.

Student financial aid was expanded to help students with less means access education and use it as a tool to achieve the American Dream. But fast forward several decades and the proportion of college graduates from low-income families has fallen.

How does the taxpaying public feel about higher education?

Public perception of higher education was very positive in the mid 20th century—it would have been absurd to doubt that the cultural, economic, social, and civic emanations from colleges and universities were anything but good goods. The book isn’t convinced this is still true.

Attitudes began to change noticeably around the Vietnam War, when colleges and universities became hubs of an angry counterculture. Some of those old estrangements seem to have never gone away, and some new ones may have accumulated since. People aren’t favorably impressed when they see university presidents and other leaders quailing and stammering when presented with foolish demands to police people’s speech on and off campus or to fine-tune institutional policy for exacting political correctness while making no real effort to denounce acts of vandalism, threats, “hate” hoaxes, and so on.

I look forward to finishing this book and better understanding how higher education can be pieced back together and what change is necessary to fix the shambles.

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