By Richard Vedder
Last night's Fox news special on higher ed has brought me a sizable number of emails. I was braced for a lot of negative criticism, but the emails are universally positive. I think the Higher Education Establishment (HEE) is totally unaware or indifferent to the increasing disconnect between their economic behavior and the attitudes of the American people.
American universities value their independence, and there is some justification for insulating them from the vagaries of politics. Yet they are dependent on the public purse. They are subsidized, while most human endeavor in our sainted Republic is taxed. Why? Supposedly because of the great positive spillover effects of higher education. Universities have a favored position in our society conferred upon them by public policy (e.g., tax deductions for charitable deductions, legislative subsidies for universities, federal student loans), so they snub public opinion at their peril.
This brings us to last night's somewhat manufactured debate between Jim Heckman of the University of Chicago and me. Prof. Heckman argued that tuition fees are too low, a view that could theoretically be justifiable if education's benefits acrue only to the users of educational services (e.g., students), not to a broader society. However,even in such a world where higher ed is considered only a private good, one could still legitimately complain that tuition levels are too high, that too little emphasis is placed on teaching, that universities don't take steps to maximize efficiency, etc. But the bigger point is that the third party payments that universities receive were given to them in large part to make the cost of education more affordable to Americans. We entrusted universities to wisely spend incremental resources to serve what the public providing the funds felt was important.
Prof. Heckman's views are similar to those of many in the academy. When asked why we teach so little, we repy " teaching is only a small part of our duties." But who decided that? The donors to universities? State legislatures? No. The universities themselves have decided to downplay instruction in order to do what the faculty wants --doing often marginal quality research of dubious value in order to enhance their own individual national recognition and marketability. We will continue to try to blow the whistle on this type behavior as we did last night.