Dissenting voices: “There is no college cost crisis”

So says Stanley Fish in his NYTimes review of economists Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman’s new book, “Why Does College Cost So Much?”:

The causes of the increase in college costs (an increase that has not, [Archibald and Feldman] contend, put college “out of reach”) are external; colleges are responding, as they must, to changes they cannot ignore and still provide a quality product. Chief among these is the change in the sophistication and cost of the technology that has at once transformed the setting of higher education and become one of the areas of knowledge higher education must impart to students.

This is an intriguing dissent from what Archibald and Feldman call the “new orthodoxy” or the “dysfunctionality narrative” of spiraling college costs.  As Fish himself opines:

As a dean who encountered the rising costs of personnel, laboratory equipment, security, compliance demands, information systems and much more every day, I knew [my own critiques written in 2003 were] basically right, but I am happy to ride (belatedly) on the coattails of people who really know what they’re talking about.

What do you think?  Is technology the major driver of increased costs in higher education?  Or are other, more relevant factors at work here?

The inequalities in higher education

Christopher Shea takes a look at two books that call for reforms to the university and college system, reforms which would include possible reforms for the tenure system. After considering what these books have to say, Shea suggests the real issue is how universities and colleges are being split into two groups: those with considerable resources and those with few resources:

Here we have the frightening subtext of all the recent hand-wringing about higher education: the widening inequality among institutions of various types and the prospects of the students who attend them. While the financial crisis has demoted Ivy League institutions from super-rich to merely rich, public universities are being gutted. It is not news that America is a land of haves and have-nots. It is news that colleges are themselves dividing into haves and have-nots; they are becoming engines of inequality. And that — not whether some professors can afford to wear Marc Jacobs — is the real scandal.

This is an interesting observation though it isn’t just public schools that are struggling with finances: many schools with fewer resources have had to make changes. What would Shea (or others) suggest could be done about closing this gap between schools?

Job outlook: either high-paying or low-paying, few in between

Perhaps adding to the bleak economic outlook, some economists are suggesting that future jobs will fall into two categories: high-paying or low-paying with few jobs in the middle.

This would have implications for the size of different classes within the United States. To have a high-paying job, employees will generally need higher-education or specialized degrees. Having a service job means struggling to make ends meet. In this scenario, what kinds of industries or sectors might provide more middle-class jobs?

Colleges have debt too

The New York Times has published an opinion piece by Mark C. Taylor, the chairman of the religion department at Columbia University, that puts a slightly different spin on the perennial college-costs-are-out-of-control argument.  He suggests that the institutions of higher education are themselves as indebted (and troubled) as their students:

There is a similarity between the debt crisis on Wall Street and what threatens higher education. Just as investors borrowed more and increased their leverage in volatile markets, many colleges and universities are borrowing more and betting on an expanding market in higher education at the precise moment their product is becoming affordable for fewer people.

It’s an interesting observation with potentially far-reaching implications.  There is always going to be demand for higher education, but it’s hard to see how a university like N.Y.U. can sustain debt levels higher than its endowment (“a staggering $2.22 billion debt with a relatively modest $2.2 billion endowment,” according to the article) in a world where “four years at a top-tier school will cost $330,000 in 2020, $525,000 in 2028 and $785,000 in 2035” if present trends continue.

Bill Gates suggests a change is coming in higher education

Bill Gates made a prediction about the future of higher education at a conference last Friday. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on Gates’ comments:

“Five years from now on the Web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university,” he argued at the Techonomy conference in Lake Tahoe, Calif. “College, except for the parties, needs to be less place-based.”

Gates went on to argue for a need to lower higher education costs and make such education more widely available. Also at the conference, Nicholas Negroponte claimed e-books will replace printed books  in five years.

There are clearly benefits to having class in-person but the rising cost of higher education will put pressure on schools to offer more Internet based classes.