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College: Undervalued, but still underperforming

By Ezra Klein,

Back when I worked at the American Prospect, we used to prize counter-counter-intuitive articles. An intuitive article would be something boring-but-true, like “college is worth attending.” But who’d want to read that? Which is why many magazines began turning to counter-intuitive articles, like “college is not worth attending.” Interesting! Unexpected! Buzzworthy! But often, these articles and the faddish, unexpected arguments behind them would ultimately turn out to be wrong. That’s when you’d need the counter-counter-intuitive article.

David Leonhardt has a good entry into the counter-counter-intuitive genre today. The subject? College is worth attending. And so it is. Read his article for why.

But it’s important to admit that counter-intuitive arguments usually have a grain or two of truth in them. In this case, the issue isn’t that college isn’t worth attending, but that there’s clearly enormous room for improvement. The same is true in the argument over health insurance: Yes, it’s important to have, but no, it’s not delivering as much value as it possible could.

In a sense, the two commodities are very similar. Both deliver huge benefits. Both see their market power augmented by social pressure to use their services — parents who don’t encourage or even send their children to college face criticism, and families who skimp on health-care services are considered irresponsible. Both benefit from heavy government subsidies. Both delivered extraordinary advances in the mid-20th century but have had a harder time innovating and changing over the past few decades. Both have managed to resist, with varying degrees of success, technological changes that would’ve seemed to threaten their core functions (online lectures for colleges, e-mails rather than office visits for doctors).

I’m not going to end this post with some wan paragraph explaining how to transform these two industries into something closer to their potential. My ideas on health-care reform are available elsewhere on the blog and I don’t know enough about education to say anything worthwhile. But if you asked me to paint an optimistic picture of the American economy over the next three or four decades, the story I’d tell you would mainly be about how we finally figured out how to drag health care and education into the 21st century. And if you asked me to paint you a pessimistic story of the next three or four decades, it’d be about how we failed to do that, and the two sectors continued eating up more and more of our money while delivering less and less value.

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