A response to Pearlstein on college costs

In the latest uninformed higher education column in a major national newspaper, Steven Pearlstein writes about the four tough things universities should do to control costs. Pearlstein’s critiques are as tired as they are naive. He argues that all higher education needs to do is to 1) cap administrative costs; 2) Operate year-round, five days a week; 3) More teaching, less (mediocre) research; and 4) Cheaper, better general education.  Geez, why haven’t we thought of that before? Of course, the reality is that these issues are far more complicated than Pearlstein suggests.

Photo credit: Brad Warsh

The first fundamental mistake Pearlstein makes is confusing cost and price.  As I’ve written about before, the price of higher education has increased. He does mention some of the frequently touted causes by higher education faculty, administrators  including administrative bloat, unproductive faculty, and a decline of state funding. Yet, these ideas as simply dismissed as a pox on all their houses.

Instead, Pearlstein mockingly says, “So you would expect universities to have embarked on the fundamental restructuring that nearly every other sector has done to reduce costs and improve quality. They haven’t.”

I have two responses to this argument.

First, higher education isn’t like nearly every other sector.  We are the most successful in the world.  Are there improvements to be made?  Absolutely.  Is a fundamental restructuring needed?  Absolutely not.

Second, look at what the notions of accountability and productivity have wrought on our K-12 system. What makes anyone think that model would work well in higher education?

The biggest mistake that Pearlstein makes is that he conflates different types of higher education institutions.

For example, he talks about a 2-2 teaching load as if it is the norm across higher education (hint:  it isn’t).

He refers to the student debt crisis as if it is a widespread when it is substantially an issue with for-profit institutions and graduate students.

Finally, he calls for cheaper general education. Perhaps he hasn’t heard of these cheaper and more accessible institutions called community colleges?

At the end of the day, Pearlstein makes the same mistake that many higher education policymakers make—he failed to consider the importance of institutional diversity.

Institutional diversity is the variety of different types of colleges and universities within a higher education system.

Many proponents, myself included, suggest that institutional diversity is the hallmark of American higher education and has led to much of the success of the U.S. system.

Pearlstein is right that we need institutions open more. Are there any institutions out there interested in starting online programs out there?  Show of hands?  Bueller?  Bueller?

We also need teaching, research, and financially accessible general education. However, he is wrong to suggest that a single model or simple list can solve all of the challenges facing colleges and universities.

Instead of acknowledging the complexity of the higher education system, he contends that we just need someone to make tough decisions as if that is a cure all for everything from state divestment to social, economic, and political changes.

Pearlstein’s argument boils down to a cardiologist can do brain surgery if they will just decide to be a neurosurgeon. Just ignore little details like the anatomical and physiological differences in the heart and brain and the years of training necessary to successfully operate on someone’s brain.

This argument may be well intended, but it demonstrates a naive understanding of the complexity involved in higher education policy. Instead, his piece is based on longtime conservative critics of higher education such as Richard Vedder and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

Moreover, Pearlstein relies, in part, on his four years of experience at George Mason University as evidence that higher education could fix these problems if there was a desire to address college costs.

Here is where the argument really falls apart: Pearlstein uses his four years of experience at a single institution instead of drawing upon the substantial existing research on higher education and college costs.

This sounds familiar.

Let’s call Pearlstein’s opinion piece what it really is…

The latest installment in the commercials: “But I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night.”