The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Four tough things columnists should do before writing about universities

If you want to write about the problems with higher ed, you need to acknowledge some salient facts

The Marist College campus. Because why not? (John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)

As an ongoing observer of the bipartisan War on College, I read a recent column on cost containment in higher education by The Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein with great interest. Pearlstein is a smart guy, and he stresses four “tough things” that universities must do to contain costs. Some of the recommendations he makes based on what he “observed during four years as a professor at George Mason University” are worth considering.

On the other hand — and you knew there was an other hand — his op-ed was also mildly infuriating, because it’s conceptually muddy and relies on outdated notions. In fact, as I was reading it, I realized that there are four tough tasks a columnist should acknowledge before writing this kind of essay. Which are:

1) Define what you mean by “universities.” Pearlstein opens up by talking about “universities in the United States” and citing all kinds of stuff involving poor graduation rates and rising student debt. But almost the entire rest of the essay implicitly talks about research universities, such as George Mason or Tufts.

This distinction matters great deal, because many of higher education’s negative financial externalities have nothing to do with research universities. Exploding levels of student debt and default, for example, have a lot to do with for-profit colleges. As Adam Looney and Constantine Yannelis argued in a September 2015 Brookings paper:

Most of the increase in default is associated with the rise in the number of borrowers at for-profit schools and, to a lesser extent, 2-year institutions and certain other non-selective institutions, whose students historically composed only a small share of borrowers. These non-traditional borrowers were drawn from lower income families, attended institutions with relatively weak educational outcomes, and experienced poor labor market outcomes after leaving school. In contrast, default rates among borrowers attending most 4-year public and non-profit private institutions and graduate borrowers — borrowers who represent the vast majority of the federal loan portfolio — have remained low, despite the severe recession and their relatively high loan balances.

And as the Atlantic’s Gillian White noted:

The amount of debt owed by those attending for-profit colleges has grown from $39 billion in 2000 to $229 billion in 2014 — which is more attributable to increases in the rate of borrowing at those schools than to increases in enrollment.

Similarly, low levels of graduation have a lot to do with for-profit schools and two-year colleges and not much at all to do with four-year research universities, as Pearlstein’s link demonstrates. Indeed, the National Center for Education Statistics’ data on graduation rates at four-year colleges shows that those rates have increased across the board between 1996 and 2007.

If Pearlstein wants to talk about what ails for-profit schools and community colleges, that’s fine. But the entire rest of his op-ed suggests that he’s not talking about those schools. And if you look at four-year universities, the situation is not nearly as grave as Pearlstein suggests.

2) Don’t exaggerate the problems that actually exist. Railing against administrative bloat and the explosion of student services in higher ed, Pearlstein clucks that “a university should spend more on instruction than it spends on anything else, besides research.”

Fair enough. Helpfully, he links to a Bain study on higher education that puts the problem in perspective:

So, based on that chart, are administrative costs and student services increasing as a percentage of total expenditures? Yes, absolutely. But after 15 years, they haven’t increased by that much, particularly at state schools. Instruction is still responsible for more than half of all spending at research universities.

Is administrative bloat a problem? Yeah, probably, but I’d make two cautionary notes. First, I’ve heard enough rants about how to eliminate the federal budget deficit through cutting administrative fat to be leery of the validity of these claims no matter what. Second, Pearlstein lists “academic and psychological counseling, security, information technology, fundraising, accreditation and government compliance” as problem areas. I’d suggest that given recent events, maybe counseling and security might not be areas worth trimming right now.

3) Don’t rely on outdated data. Pearlstein recommends year-round teaching to exploit underutilized facilities, which makes me wonder if he has been to a college campus during the summer. A significant money-maker for colleges is the leasing out of facilities in the summer to executive education programs, summer camps and other enterprises. Pearlstein also urges a greater use of online or hybrid courses, apparently unaware that this bubble popped, like, three years ago.

More significantly, Pearlstein recommends scaling back on research because no one reads it:

“The vast majority of the so-called research turned out in the modern university is essentially worthless,” wrote Page Smith, a longtime professor of history at the University of California and an award-winning historian. “It does not result in any measurable benefit to anything or anybody. . . . It is busywork on a vast, almost incomprehensible scale.”
The number of journal articles published has climbed from 13,000 50 years ago to 72,000 today, even as overall readership has declined. In his new book, “Higher Education in America,” former Harvard president Derek Bok notes that 98 percent of articles published in the arts and humanities are never cited by another researcher. In social sciences, it is 75 percent. Even in the hard sciences, where 25 percent of articles are never cited, the average number of citations is between one and two.

These paragraphs got quite a bit of attention on social media. They’re also badly outdated, relying on a study that first appeared in 1990 and compares apples and oranges. The Atlantic’s Yoni Appelbaum dissected the numbers — you can read his tweetstorm for more.

4) Be honest that you’re using higher ed reform as an implicit industrial policy. An implicit theme of Pearlstein’s essay is that too much money is being thrown at the humanities and not enough at the STEM fields [UPDATE: This morning Pearlstein called me directly to state that he does not in fact believe this. The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts apologizes if this inference was made in error]. This theme is hardly unique to him. President Obama has scorned art history majors in the past and GOP presidential candidates have been bashing philosophers in the present.

The obvious implication of all these insults is that the United States needs to produce more college graduates with real-world skills that add value to the economy. Which is indeed a fine idea. But can we just note that it’s a little hypocritical for politicians to praise the virtues of the free market as a source of U.S. economic dynamism and then act all-knowing in arguing for STEM majors over the liberal arts?

Virginia Postrel has been poking at this intellectually barren pinata for years now, and as she notes, the majors that politicians love to bash are hardly lacking in generating useful skills:

[A]rt history isn’t a major naive kids fall into because they’ve heard a college degree — any college degree — will get you a good job. It’s an intellectually demanding major, requiring the memorization and mastery of a large body of visual material, a facility for foreign languages, and the ability to write clearly and persuasively.

When politicians and pundits argue in favor of reallocating resources from one college major to another, they’re trying to say that they can pick disciplinary winners and losers better than universities, foundations or the students themselves. There are big risks in making that assumption, especially if you base these selections on “facts” such as welders outearning philosophers that turn out not to be true. And usually such suggestions ignore the simple fact that U.S. research universities outperform every other country in the world. Or as that Bain report acknowledged at the outset:

Few industries in the United States have achieved unquestioned global leadership as consistently and effectively as our higher education system. U.S. colleges and universities are the cornerstone of our economic prosperity and the key to realizing the American dream. Thirty years of growth have confirmed the sector’s leadership and vibrancy — the result of demographic and economic factors combining to lift higher education even higher.

I get that higher education is a ripe target in an election year. And I get that blasting the “higher ed bubble” is popular even if it is not necessarily true. But for once, I’d like critics to concede that this is a far more complex topic than just “costs are out of control.”

It shouldn’t be that tough a thing to admit.