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Is College Worth It?

Jeffrey Bruno

Gary J. Scott - published on 05/29/13

William J. Bennett's and David Wilezol's argument fails on its own terms

“Whether … cultivating the mind and the soul or maximizing financial return on investment, most of higher education fails most students.”  That is the dreadful conclusion reached by William J. Bennett and David Wilezol in their new book, Is College Worth It?

Reviewing their book in the Washington Times, David DesRosiers (D) concurs with that conclusion, as well as the authors’ reasoning to arrive at that conclusion.  DesRosiers finds Bennett and Wilezol (B&W) providing three general reasons, bolded below.  Upon closer scrutiny, however, these reasons prove unpersuasive, as this analysis will reveal.

  • College Cost Has Increased Unnecessarily

“College has simply become too expensive,” DesRosiers writes in conveying the authors’ first critique of college.  Over the past generation, the real price has “jumped 300 percent” (D).  Of course, whether this is true, and whether it makes college culpable, depends on the meaning and the origin of this apparent inflation of the price of college. 

The exact education service, apparently increasing in price, is never designated.  That omission prevents formulating even a simple college-price or college cost index.  They do mention that the service becoming so pricey is “attendance.”  But even then, DesRosiers specifies this costly attendance to be at non-academic venues: “Wired dorms, state-of-the-art workout facilities, beautiful grounds and Zagat-worthy dining.” 

So country club-like living adjacent to college classrooms has become extravagantly expensive.  That doesn’t make “college” or classroom instruction more expensive; it makes resident living more expensive.  The underlying opportunity-cost of education does not consist in food, housing, and recreation, since those expenditures are more or less incurred by persons whether participating or not in education.

An analogy illuminates this and the related concern of financial aid and its diversion-inflating tuitions.  Dictators have built extra palaces for themselves by allowing outside humanitarian aid – earmarked for food and medicine – to displace dictators’ initial and meager spending on food and medicine.  But dictators’ diversion of their funds from food and medicine to the construction of their new palaces doesn’t make one unit of food or medicine higher-priced.  Similarly, colleges’ diverting financial aid to research, student amenities, or to college endowments doesn’t raise the unit-cost of teaching or learning.

Related to this – and from the perspective of Catholic thought – St. Thomas Aquinas argued that the greatest service one can give to his neighbor is to lead him to truth.  Hence, the highest good does not consist in producing a larger basket of luxury goods by first providing him some truth at lower price.

  • Colleges Have Corrupted Teaching and Curricula

Meanwhile, most of the college instructors that students will encounter after departing their expensive residences and dining halls are “not tenured rock star[s], but galley slave grad student[s] who [are] paid so little” (D).  This deficient faculty expertise, which students suffer when graduate assistants do the teaching, DesRosiers explains, arises because the more experienced and senior-level teachers “teach less and research more.”

To repair the exploitation portion of the college crisis in pay, graduate-student teachers could then be paid more.  But that would raise college cost and thus undermine “the financial return on investment.”

Or alternatively, those “rock star” faculties might actually teach more and research less, and at the same pay.  But their reduced research would reduce their “rock star” expertise, and thereby harm instructional quality.  So the authors’ challenging of college faculties’ pay and teaching allocations seems to have no remedy, for they rely on ambiguous and shifting education standards.  College teaching is now too cheap, as cost-conscious colleges now turn to lower-wage and less-expert teachers.

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