Friday, December 20, 2013

The Best American Business

With the economy struggling slowly upward, many families across the country are reminded these days of the most recession-proof business of all. After weeks of supplication, they are being told whether or not they will be permitted to pay as much as $200,000 or more (mostly in loans with interest over years to come) for a four-year product with no guarantees.

College admissions letters are bringing news of where beloved children will be going, leaving home to start their adult journey in life. (“Who,” I remember a middle-aged friend once asking, “was that 18-year-old kid to decide I was going to be a dentist all my life?”)

College education matters, perhaps even more so than ever in hard times. Yet, even with a slowdown in the rate of tuition increases, it is the largest blind item most Americans will ever buy and comes fraught with anxiety and uncertainty.

The President and his Secretary of Education are among those expressing doubts about the “prestige value” of a degree and urging a more realistic approach to higher education, instead of rewarding colleges for “gaming” the ratings and raising costs.

A laudable aim, but it can it be any more effective than Obamacare will be in containing hospital charges?

Paying for major surgery and college tuition costs are lofty and laudable aims but, somewhere between government intervention and free enterprise in which consumer choices are constricted and manipulated, there have to be ways to protect both the interest of individuals and the social benefits of higher education.

For those who will be outraged by any such suggestion, I can offer only anecdotal and biographical evidence. Were it not for tuition-free education at the City College of New York in the 1940s, I could not have dreamed of higher education.

Neither could have Dr. Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine, Colin Powell and dozens of Nobel winners as well as thousands of other scientists, physicians, teachers and others who spent their lives contributing to the general welfare.

Society may not afford to make such investments in its future today, but can it afford not to try and control some of the abuse and waste in the recession-proof college business we have now?  

Update: On the other hand, as some universities lower standards, there is faculty pushback against the creating “Walmarts of higher education—-convenient, cheap, and second-rate” by dropping crucial courses to improve graduation figures. In any event, it is long past time for serious national discussion about making colleges a source of serious learning again rather than a consumer product.

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