Monday, December 17, 2007

More Good News from Harvard and Its Clones

By Richard Vedder

As the Christmas season approaches (note I deliberately and insensitively commit the high sin of calling it the "Christmas season" and not the holiday season), there are several small pieces of good news from the most elite halls of academia. The academy is running a bit scared, or feeling a bit ashamed, or something, but the elite goods are doing some good things, which might percolate down to Joe Six Pack University. Let me mention three.

First, Harvard's announcement last week that they are increasing tuition discounts for a lot of student is having the expected domino effect. Cal Tech has followed suit and Yale is going to make some announcement soon. Before the year is out, expect nearly every top 25 school to do something. Even state universities are getting in on the act. The University of Washington months ago announced it was going tuition free for lower income students, and now Indiana University seems to be following suit. In part this is a response to rising public resentment of rich schools charging so much, and also an attempt to at least nominally meet some of the goals outlined by the Spellings Commission.


I already announced I was putting crimson lights on the Christmas tree in honor of Harvard. That is a done deal. Now I need to put a few more crimson ornaments on. Why?
As INSIDE HIGHER ED points out, Harvard is dealing with one of the biggest scandals in higher education --the long, long, long time it takes to get a Ph.D. in the humanities and social sciences. Harvard's solution is great --reduce the ability to take in new students the greater the number of Ph.D. candidates who have been in the pipeline more than eight years. The Harvard policy seems to be effective. Money talks ---big-- in higher ed, and I have advocated state governments eliminate subsidies for Ph.D. students of more than six years in duration (arguably, four).


One reason prices are rising so much in higher ed is that supply curves are nearly perfectly inelastic amongst the best schools -- greater demand has absolutely no impact on actual admissions. Harvard has not expanded enrollment among undergraduate students materially for decades, and the same is true of many other top schools, including my alma mater Northwestern.

Princeton's moderately sizable (more than a 10 percent increase) expansion is being duplicated at numerous other campuses --e.g., Chicago, Duke, Rice (INSIDE HIGHER ED tells me). Now Stanford is talking of growing its undergraduate enrollment of nearly 7,000 a bit, and Yale might not be far behind.

In some cases, the motives for doing all of this may not be all pure. These schools are getting increasingly criticized for being overly rich, overly elitist, and insensitive to the rising demand for quality higher education. Criticism is threatening to become legislative --forced minimum spending levels from endowments is one idea. Whatever the motives, whether pure and pristine or base and crass, these are all welcome moves.

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