Wednesday, July 06, 2011

John Stossel and "The College Scam"

John Stossel just posted an article called, "The College Scam." It is an abbreviated version of something he recently did on Fox. I usually like Stossel's work but in this case I think he dropped the ball (My readers can judge whether my objections are valid, or based merely on personal bias due to my faculty position in a college).

Stossel quotes Hillary Clinton as saying "Graduates from four-year colleges earn nearly twice as much as high school graduates, an estimated $1 million more."  Stossel concedes that this is true but quotes author Richard Vedder as saying that the comparison is ridiculous because those who go to college are more disciplined and smarter than those who can't get in, and would have made more money anyway.

Stossel and Vedder are probably right that those who where not smart enough or disciplined enough to get in to college will generally earn less than those who go to college, but Stossel and Vedder have not shown that those who are smart and disciplined but do not choose the college route will make as much as their peers who go to college. It is the comparison offered by Stossel and Vedder which is invalid, not the comparison offered by Hillary Clinton.

According to Stossel, "Riley says some college students don't get what they pay for because their professors have little incentive to teach. The incentives are all for more research."

That may be true of large research  universities but it is much less true of many smaller colleges where students are actually taught by professors with Ph.D.'s and not by teaching assistants who teach while the professors do the research! The answer is not to label all colleges as a "scam." The answer may be to send your kids to smaller teaching colleges rather than major research universities.

Stossel then points out that many people are just not cut out for college. He asks why colleges accept these people in the first place? His answer is "money."

There is some truth to that. Colleges are businesses. They need money to survive. But that is a superficial answer. If all colleges had strict admissions policies I never would have got into college and may have been stuck milking cows! But I worked hard in college and succeeded--just like many others who did not do well in High School (for a variety of reasons) but did well in college.

If all colleges had strict admissions policies and kept people out who did not do well in high school, Stossel could have written an article condemning colleges for not giving students a second chance and trying to help them.

Stossel should know that education is not just about getting into college. To a significant degree, education is what you make it. It takes effort, study and hard work. Rather than asking colleges why they admit such students (in other words, why do some colleges give them a second chance and try to help them), maybe it would be better to ask students why they throw their money away on an education for which they never intend to invest any effort.

Stossel then complains that "Tuitions have risen four times faster than inflation." This is a very superficial attack. As a good libertarian I would think Stossel would want to know why this is. For example, it would be fascinating to discover how much excessive accreditation requirements and government regulations add to the cost of colleges.

Such regulations require colleges to hire more and more people to deal with the mountains of paperwork required. Accreditation requirements--which sometimes have more to do with political correctness than with the quality of education--take literally hundreds, if not thousands of faculty and administration man-hours (depending on the size of the institution)--this is time and money that could have been devoted to students and teaching.

In my own area which is library, some brilliant minds changed the standards from an objective, fixed target, to a relative, constantly moving target. What this means is that instead of having a set standard of how many books a library needs for a certain number of students, we now have to compare our holdings with other libraries in a "peer group"!

So I have to add more and more volumes not just to keep the collection current, but to keep up with other colleges in my peer group. But they have to add more and more volumes to keep up with me and the others in their peer group! It is a never ending viscous spiral of spending! In other words, I could have an outstanding collection that meets our student's needs quite well, but heaven help me if the accrediting team shows up and I'm at the bottom of the list in my peer group!

My objection to Stossel's article is not that he attacked higher education--there is certainly plenty to attack. My objection is that his attacks were so superficial and sensationalist ("College scam") as to be little more than a smear job.

I expected better from Stossel.


Kevin said...

I think students should consider what they hope to achieve while in college and where they intend to be after they attend. What will they do with their degree? How much debt, if any, will they have? Why do the think they will get a job? How long can they go without a job? How much money will they need to earn in their job to make their financial commitments? Can they attend a less expensive school and get the same or better education?

Also... Stossel's slight of schools for freely taking money from a paying customer who may not be able to cut it is somewhat hypocritical. In a free market people can exchange their money for goods and services. Stossel raves about this on and on and on. It's what he's building this phase of his career on. So why should expect academic institutions to be any different? Is he suggesting that schools should choose how I can spend my money? Perhaps next he'll rail on about how people can go to restaurants and order more food then they can actually eat... all because of the restaurant owner's love of money.

Phil said...

You, sir, I have a hard time believing would not have gotten into college. You're brilliant and to date I still hold that you're one of the best professors I had (granted going along with what you said about sending students to smaller colleges, I had several excellent professors). Ironically, judging by HS and my SAT's I'd have easily gotten in and gotten booted shortly after but, by allowing me to "waste" my money I was able to hold out, finish my degree, and get a fairly well paying job with vast opportunity.

Dennis said...

Thank you for your kind words, Phil.