Glenn Reynolds on Higher Education

By now, many, many, many of my comrades have recommended Glenn Reynolds’ provocative and convincing column on higher education, but that won’t stop me from doing the same. He begins by making an observation about the tension between the goals of social policy and the crude instruments of social policy, the efficacy of which tend to be implicitly evaluated on the basis of inputs: 

The government decides to try to increase the middle class by subsidizing things that middle class people have: If middle class people go to college and own homes, then surely if more people go to college and own homes, we’ll have more middle class people.

But homeownership and college aren’t causes of middle-class status, they’re markers for possessing the kinds of traits — self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc. — that let you enter, and stay in, the middle class.

Subsidizing the markers doesn’t produce the traits; if anything, it undermines them. One might as well try to promote basketball skills by distributing expensive sneakers.

Professional basketball players have expensive sneakers, but — TV commercials notwithstanding — it’s not the shoes that make them good at dunking.

If the government really wants to encourage people to achieve, and maintain, middle-class status, it should be encouraging things like self-discipline and the ability to defer gratification. But that’s not how politics works.

Passing out goodies generates more votes, even though doing so undermines the character traits upon which prosperity depends. That may change as the global political class, pretty much everywhere, runs out of other people’s money, but it hasn’t quite changed yet.

Reynolds is talking about tendencies, not absolutes. One of his tentative solutions could very well be embraced by peole who don’t share his (and perhaps I should say our) larger political economy diagnosis:

For higher education, the solution is more value for less money. Student loans, if they are to continue, should be made dischargeable in bankruptcy after five years — but with the school that received the money on the hook for all or part of the unpaid balance.

Up until now, the loan guarantees have meant that colleges, like the writers of subprime mortgages a few years ago, got their money up front, with any problems in payment falling on someone else.

Make defaults expensive to colleges, and they’ll become much more careful about how much they lend and what kinds of programs they offer. China, which has already faced its own higher education bubble, is simply shutting down programs that produce too many unemployable graduates. …

Another response is an increased emphasis on non-college education.

The problem, of course, is that Reynolds’ approach is in tension with a mental construct we’ve recently discussed:

As Neyfakh describes the findings of Penn psychologist Jonathan Baron, “What mattered to them was seeing more of their own money at work, Baron concluded, rather than the amount of good it did.”

Making defaults expensive to colleges, as Reynolds proposes, will necessarily make them more selective. Yet for-profits have filled a large and important niche by meeting the needs of adult students and other non-traditional students who may well pose larger credit risks. Reynolds idea is nevertheless a good one, in my view, and concern for those who are unlikely to complete a degree program at reasonable cost is what presumably motivates Reynold’s emphasis on non-college education. But I can already predict the rejoinders: this measure will raise the drawbridge to higher education, etc. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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