While her students were busy cramming for finals last month, UM President Mary Sue Coleman bravely took on the college tuition bubble. . . by penning an open letter to America’s Man of Action, Barack Obama.
I’m glad I was too busy studying to notice the story. I would have blown a gasket.
Never mind the fact that Coleman – one of the most generously compensated university presidents in the nation – can bemoan the endless upward climb of tuition rates while raking in over $750,000-a-year in salary, deferred pay, bonuses, and benefits. Her gall is endemic in the industry that is modern-day higher education.
Ranting about Coleman’s hypocrisy is satisfying – but it is neither groundbreaking nor constructive. So I read the full text of her open letter (if you enjoy digesting such pap, you can do so here). But there’s only one statement in the letter that matters – and it is as clarifying as it is brief:
Higher education is a public good currently lacking public support.
In one fell sentence, Coleman justifies virtually unlimited future spending (much of it taxpayer-financed) on public education and reveals the disastrous mentality behind so many of our nation’s failing enterprises, from the Postal Service to Amtrak to higher ed.
Once something is declared a “public good,” normal laws of economics go out the window. For if something is a public good, we must have more of it at all costs. Even those who don’t enjoy the good directly become indirect beneficiaries. Criticism is self-defeating; it is anti-social. Hence, calls for more state support for universities that most folks will never attend – along with more grants and more federally-backed student loans. More, more, more.
But to advance this argument is to claim that every labor-saving, productivity-increasing, or wealth-creating technology or product is also a “public good” needing public support, since more of those goods increases the wealth of society as a whole. Just imagine if the government tried to guide the production of, for example, cars through a series of incentives, subsidies, and mandates. The results would be horrifying. And costly.
If we assume that increasing the number of workers with a four-year college education is beneficial – and then assume that our universities are equipped to provide that education in the first place – we should subject the process of attaining a degree to efficiency-maximizing market forces, not cry for more public aid.
Coleman’s statements demonstrate higher ed’s pathological inability to diagnose its own deepening problems. Barring a shared epiphany, we can expect Coleman and her colleagues to continue demanding that society foot the bill for academia’s costly indulgences.