It has become popular for critics to characterize colleges and universities as if they are all the same and to lambast them based on speculative arguments.
Victor Davis Hanson, a frequent contributor to this editorial page, and a senior fellow at the Stanford University-based Hoover Institution, writes as if institutions of higher education are essentially fraudulent.
Hanson’s litany of grievances includes their failed liberal education missions, the denial of students’ constitutional rights, the illegal engagement of race and gender preferences, soaring costs that are out of sync with inflation, and worst of all that a collegiate education coddles students and doesn’t prepare them for the world.
Elites are expensive, they do have selective admissions processes, and the debt incurred by attendees can be significant — but these facts without more do not justify Hanson’s generalizations. And more important, elite private universities do not represent most colleges and universities.
Most colleges and universities are “open access,” i.e., they don’t use selective or affirmative action admissions policies and annually, admit more than 50% of applicants.
Most colleges and universities are reasonably priced. The average cost for access institutions is nowhere near the $70,000 that Ivies and other selective institutions charge. The annual cost of attendance for a resident of Wisconsin who attends UW-Platteville, for example, is under $20,000, less than one third of the cost of an Ivy.
UW-Platteville’s sister private institutions in Dubuque are similarly priced, and not out of sync with inflation.
When I attended Graceland College in the mid-1970s, the yearly cost of attendance was about the same as a non-luxury new car. Today the annual cost of attendance at a typical private college is comparable, approximately the same as the current cost of a new non-luxury car. The cost to attend a public institution is even less. Today, however, need-based aid and scholarships are subsidized by states at a lower rate and seldom cover the full cost of attendance. This means that students of modest means have to work more hours during school and often have to take out loans to afford their educational and living expenses.
As for student debt: The more serious problem with student debt is caused by the for-profit higher education industry and made worse by the fact that many for-profit students don’t ultimately earn degrees and are unable to get the kind of employment that allows them to repay their educational debt.
It’s true, not every college graduate finds a job immediately after graduation, but over the long term, education is a good investment. “The median pay for those with a bachelor’s degree is 74.5% higher than for those with just a high school degree.” David Leonhardt, writing in the New York Times recently, cited a thorough study tracking students throughout the country and pointed out that the great majority of students who entered state colleges and universities hail from the bottom fifth of income distribution and graduate into the top three-fifths. Workers with college degrees also experience lower unemployment rates versus those with terminal high school diplomas. College graduates earn the skills needed to adapt as a result of their education, a critical skill in our ever-changing workforce.
There is nothing speculative about the fact college graduates contribute to local economies. Our tri-state colleges and universities are significant contributors to the economic success, workforce development and civic engagement throughout our region’s history.
If we are going to criticize higher education, it needs to be fact-based, and it should be understood that all colleges and universities are not the same.