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Education

The University-Student Contract Isn’t What You Might Think

The University of Southern California is pictured in Los Angeles, California, May 22, 2018. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

In response to Unreasonable Covid Restrictions May Violate University-Student Contracts

In reference to campus Covid restrictions, Michael Strain says, “The behavior this month of some elite colleges has been baffling.”

As I wrote last week, it’s actually a much more stable equilibrium than you might think. The stereotypical rebellious ethos of college students is mostly a thing of the past. College today is about conformity and obedience.

The University of Southern California has some of the most stringent Covid restrictions in the country. USC’s student government has a whole page on its website about Covid — but it’s not about standing up for students. It just parrots the administration. It even has an FAQ section that includes, “Where can I report non-compliance with COVID policies?”

As for the “university-student contract,” the writers of the Wall Street Journal op-ed that Strain references fail to grasp what that contract really is. It’s not about education or providing services to paying customers. From the student’s perspective, the contract is very simple: “They pretend to teach, and we pretend to learn.” (In researching this post, I found a great op-ed from 2013, also in the Wall Street Journal, about the professor’s side of that contract.) Online school actually makes fulfilling that contract easier, not harder.

The op-ed that Strain is commenting on says of Covid restrictions that “any imposition must be done in good faith and based on evidence, not on the desire of a panicky provost’s office to ‘do something.'” There’s nothing unusual about university administrators acting without any evidence to back up their commands. Look at all the diversity-training nonsense that has no evidence behind it. And if students get to go to court every time a panicky provost’s office gets the urge to “do something,” our courts will never have time to hear cases on anything else.

The op-ed says of lawsuits brought at the start of lockdowns on breach-of-contract grounds that “some courts further reasoned that universities didn’t contractually promise in-person learning: They merely agreed to supply a degree or course of study, and thus could choose an online format.” Those courts were correct. That’s exactly what colleges do, and students for the most part understand that.

As I wrote last week:

But students are getting ripped off, you may think. Sure, but they were getting ripped off when classes were in person. No “college experience” is worth $50,000 per year, and students know that. The payoff is the degree. Get that degree at all costs — it’s what every adult in their lives has told them since grade school. Check the boxes, line the résumé, get the piece of paper. That’s required to get any “good job” anyway, and that, not education, is the point of college today.

The incentive structure of the modern university virtually ensures poor provision of education, the service it purports to deliver. Economists James Buchanan and Nicos Devletoglou nailed it in an underappreciated book from 1970 called Academia in Anarchy: An Economic Diagnosis. They point to three simple facts about college education. It is a product that:

  1. Customers don’t pay for
  2. Producers don’t sell
  3. Owners don’t control

It might seem strange to say that students don’t pay for education given soaring tuition costs. But remember that universities are price discriminators, and they’ve gotten very good at determining how much people are willing to pay, providing financial aid and scholarships to make up for the remainder. According to the College Board, in 2021-2022 the average in-state tuition for a public, four-year university was $10,740, but after all the aid, students only pay $2,640 on average. With others bearing the bulk of the costs, there’s less incentive for students to demand good service.

The producers of college education are professors, but they don’t actually sell college. Admissions and marketing offices do that. Professors are going to be given a class roster independent of the quality of their instruction. They don’t care if students are upset, and they have no reason to be. Many of them see teaching as a bother anyway because it gets in the way of research, which is what they really want to do.

And the owners of universities are not in charge of running the university. In the case of public universities, the state is the owner, and it appoints some sort of board of trustees to represent the state’s interests. But the state isn’t calling the shots on day-to-day operations. It hires a university president to do that, and he or she has an army of administrators to carry out the actual business of running the school, with nearly complete independence from the board of trustees.

Buchanan and Devletoglou’s simple analysis of incentives was spot-on, and it’s a good starting point for any conversation on academia. Why does academia behave as though it is hermetically sealed off from the rest of reality? Because of the incentives that students, professors, and administrators face.

Here’s what students would view as a breach of contract: If employers viewed remote-learning degrees as less worthy than in-person degrees. But it’s not like employers were asking what students actually did in college when it was in person anyway. They just want to see the degree on the resume, preferably from a trusted name brand. Students know that, and they behave accordingly. They fight tooth and nail to get into the trusted, name-brand schools. Then, once they are there, they pretend to learn, and professors pretend to teach. After four years (or five or six), pieces of paper are handed out certifying the completion of this process, employers are impressed by it, and everybody goes home happy.

I am exaggerating slightly, but only slightly. It really doesn’t matter whether this process is delivered in person or online. The end result is the same, and that’s all that ever really mattered in the first place.

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