The Know-Nothing Assault on Higher Education

We used to look to California as being in the avant-garde, a setter of trends that would spread across the country, especially in public higher education. Texas has been more in the derrière-garde, but in an era when we believe that the higher-education sector is retrenching, some attention to those who bring up the rear is useful.

Texas received a lot of publicity last year when Texas A&M University, whose main campus is one of the state’s two flagships, proposed an accountability measure for individual faculty members based solely on grant dollars received and student credit-hours generated. Interestingly, although the proposal’s originators, including the university’s trustees, were on the political right, this approach to measurement is qualitatively similar to that imposed by Soviet commissars on glass factories, which were required to measure output in square meters, with shattering results. A similar study was considered, but not fully carried out, by my own university.

Readers should see that this kind of measure and its cousin—basing faculty evaluations on student evaluations—are silly. They equate quantity and quality and ignore most aspects of what higher education produces. Although roundly scorned in much of the national and local media, that the idea was even discussed in reputable venues concentrated public attention on just one part of higher education. So regardless of whether this kind of measure becomes widely used—and I don’t believe it will—some damage has already been done.

One might attribute the Texas brouhaha to budget exigencies generated by the recession. These have certainly provided a fertile field for political maneuvering, but politics has been the driving force. The maneuvers have been proximately determined by the belief of an ambitious, entrenched governor that education-bashing will help to attract right-wing voters to his presidential ambitions. Ultimately, though, these efforts are attributable to the views of a few of his wealthy contributors, who have personal axes to grind with the premier tiers of public higher education in Texas.

The budget problems are not going away. Indeed, because of impending cutbacks in federal grants, I expect them to worsen, with deleterious effects that will spread throughout public higher education. In a sensible world, the cuts would be made disproportionately at the margins; colleges that have trouble attracting students, that are in remote areas, or that offer programs that duplicate their neighbors’ superior efforts would bear the brunt of budget-cutting. Regrettably, financing of public higher education doesn’t work that way. The cuts will be nearly across the board, since each local state representative wants to ensure that the local public college receives its “fair” share of public funds.

Cuts of this sort will hurt elite public universities in the short term. But they will meet the reductions without major cuts in quality. They will raise tuition more rapidly than otherwise and will do an even better job of building endowments, which is fine with me.

I’m not bothered by tuition increases for students who come from families with incomes exceeding $120,000 a year, as do half of the students at the University of Texas at Austin and probably at the other elite public campuses as well. Indeed, such increases are desirable—why should the average taxpayer continue to subsidize the children of the well-to-do so heavily?

And large gifts to endowment—more private charity—at a time and in a country with one of the lowest tax burdens in the industrialized world, are also hardly burdensome. I have no doubt that the long-term effect on the elite public colleges will be relatively minor.

But the long-term impacts of the impending budget cuts will not be minor at the broad array of lower-tier public institutions that account for the larger part of this sector. Many of them cannot raise tuition without reducing demand and thus their ability to spread their fixed costs. And many do not have an alumni base that is likely to generate endowment donations big enough to substitute for public revenues. In the end, those colleges will instead get by with fewer programs and larger classes; with fewer tenure-stream faculty members and still more adjuncts and temporary faculty; and with less-up-to-date facilities.

Is this worrisome? After all, the gem of American higher education, its mixture of world-class frontier-level research with undergraduate and graduate education, will be maintained in the elite private and public research universities. So what if much of public higher education becomes increasingly vocationally oriented and is conducted on the cheap?

This reversion is the logical consequence of the now 40-year trend toward increasing inequality of income, a trend that in the past 15 years has been especially marked at the very upper tail of income distribution. The effects on higher education are no surprise, but they are disturbing. As higher education becomes a gated community for the offspring of the well-to-do, opportunity for others is reduced. The American ideal of upward mobility, perhaps our greatest contribution to the intellectual capital of mankind, is further diminished.

Worse, the opportunity for the diamond-in-the-rough student to become polished and to contribute world-class innovations that generate the technological leaps that benefit the entire society—and the human race—will diminish. Finally, by vocationalizing higher education for the masses—replacing education with training—we will increasingly fail to teach people to think.

This is only a partial jeremiad on American higher education; much of what is special and world-class in the industry will persist. But the consequences of the recession and the growing influence of a know-nothing movement, manipulated and financed by energetic, short-sighted, selfish billionaires, are only beginning to be felt in higher education. The best years of this industry are past—and worse is yet to come.

Daniel Hamermesh is a UT professor of economics. This story was first published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Photo courtesy Daniel Hamermesh.


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