LOPEZ: You write that “as has been widely noted, the generic college degree is today what a high-school diploma used to be: a bare ticket to potential entry-level employment, even in fields that used to not require a college degree at all.” Isn’t that an indictment of high school in America? How would you do high school differently?
REYNOLDS: Well, we send a lot of people to college in part for the same reason that the old Soviet Army had lots of officers — they needed officers because their sergeants were lousy, so they had captains doing what sergeants would do in our army. We need college graduates now to do things — like show up on time, speak courteously, and make accurate change — that high-school students used to do.
LOPEZ: What’s your most practical advice to high-school students and their parents about what to do next?
REYNOLDS: Don’t go into debt, except in very rare circumstances. Even the lucrative majors — say, industrial engineering — aren’t such a good deal if you borrow a lot of money to pursue them. Plus, you might not complete them, and even if you do, engineers get laid off, too. Six-figure debt is a burden on anything you do.
LOPEZ: How is your work as a law professor looking “increasingly . . . more like that of an outsourced call-center worker than that of a plumber”? Did you ever really confuse yourself with a plumber before?
REYNOLDS: In the 1990s, people were talking about the ascendancy of “knowledge workers” over blue-collar types. But if you’re primarily working with information, you’re in competition with smart people all over the world. But no matter how smart he is, a guy in Bangalore can’t fix your toilet. Only a plumber in your town can do that.
LOPEZ: Why do we tolerate spending more than we can afford on education?
REYNOLDS: Two things: First, people don’t appreciate how much more it costs than even 20 years ago until they confront it firsthand. A lot of assumptions that parents have based on their own youth don’t apply when the cost of college has more than doubled in the meantime. Second, at least until very recently, people thought that student-loan debt was “good” debt. Now, as anyone who follows Suze Orman, Dave Ramsey, or Clark Howard can attest, they’ve learned otherwise. But the changes in the system are only just beginning to appear in response to that.
LOPEZ: How can college make income inequality worse?
REYNOLDS: Research indicates that students coming in with identical predictors (grades, test scores) come out with different prospects based on family income. Students from well-off backgrounds do better, students from less-well-off backgrounds often wind up worse off. There’s even research suggesting that many minority students actually leave college doing worse on academic performance tests than when they arrived.
LOPEZ: How should higher ed “sacrifice for the common good”?
REYNOLDS: Back in the 1930s, economist John Hicks said that the best monopoly profit is “a comfortable life.” The quasi-monopolies that have been set up by unionized teachers in K–12 and the tenured professoriate in higher education have given the guild members a comfortable life, but at great expense to students and families. If you favor redistribution from the well-off to the less-well-off, then academics’ lives should probably become less comfortable in exchange for cheaper and more responsive educational models.
LOPEZ: How serious is your “hotelling” for college idea?
REYNOLDS: Well, not quite serious enough for me to start rounding up investors. But the idea is that if people really want the “college experience” of late-night pizza, bull sessions, and beer, why not build a resort-like campus, hire some unemployed Ph.Ds as tutors, and then pipe in all your classes online? Put it in an attractive location, and students might be happy to pay. Grand Cayman is nice this time of year.
LOPEZ: What’s so special about the Khan Academy?
REYNOLDS: Well, lots of things are special about the Khan Academy. My nine-year-old nephew learned how to program Java animations via Khan, and now he’s online helping other kids learn. But one thing I like is the “flipped classroom” model, where the boring passive part — lectures — are watched online by students at home as homework, while working problems, the traditional homework, is done in the classroom where the teacher is available to help one-on-one. That’s much better than wasting the teacher on lectures, and then having parents try to puzzle out the homework at night.