More on the ‘bifurcation’ of higher education

by Grace

Nicholas Lemann argues that elite colleges are actually priced too low.

Where higher education is actually underpriced is in the top-tier schools. That may sound offensive, but price is determined by what people are willing to pay, and the top twenty-five or so schools in the country could charge even more than they do. The number of applications to those schools continues to grow faster than their cost. (Ivy League colleges will charge about sixty thousand dollars next year.) That’s because the perceived value of their degrees continues to rise. Now that we know that either Obama or Romney will be President next year, we also know that, from 1989 through at least 2017, every President of the United States will have had a degree from either Harvard or Yale or, in the case of George W. Bush, both. That could be a three-decade accident, or it may be a sign of something lasting—the educational version of the inequality surge, elevating “one per cent” institutions far above the rest.

The trend in higher education may be in the direction of sharper class distinctions, and Lemann thinks pumping more taxpayer money into more colleges will improve opportunity and help society.

In higher education, the United States may be on its way to becoming more like the rest of the world, with a small group of schools controlling access to life membership in the élite. And higher education is becoming more like other areas of American life, with the fortunate few institutions distancing themselves ever further from the many. All those things which commencement speakers talk about—personal growth, critical-thinking skills, intellectual exploration, breadth of learning—will survive at the top institutions, but other colleges will come under increased pressure to adopt the model of trade schools. Student loans open access to students, and give colleges more freedom. Obama and Romney will have plenty to disagree about, and it’s good that the interest rate on student loans isn’t on the list. For the federal government to pump extra tuition money into the system, in the form of low-cost loans, in order to spread opportunity more widely, and to allow more schools to provide more than skills instruction, seems like a small price to pay for the kind of society it buys.

I don’t think simply pumping extra tuition money into the system will bolster the growth of rigorous institutions that produce intellectual graduates with strong critical thinking skills.  The problem I see is a scarcity of high school graduates adequately prepared for those types of colleges.  Unless that changes, we’re likely to continue to see the growing bifurcation between elite universities and “trade schools”.

9 Comments to “More on the ‘bifurcation’ of higher education”

  1. There’s also the problem of the for-profit colleges soaking up most of the loan money while providing the lowest quality education. The loans are not going to improve the quality of education, but to enrich the vultures.


  2. This is where conversations on the cost of college always go in my ivy-entwined household. There are so many lesser institutions that charge as much as ivies and offer less financial aid, it feels like the ivy and similar schools have been holding tuition down rather than gouging.


  3. If you’re going to label colleges as “vultures”, I think some not-for-profits could be included. I read about administrators at these types of colleges reaping generous financial rewards, even with high drop-out rates or high levels of unemployed graduates . Personally, I wouldn’t label the president of Ohio State University a “vulture”, but with a compensation package of over $2 million, others might.

    Do the for-profit colleges really soak up most of the loan money?


  4. “my ivy-entwined household” Now that conjures up quite a picture! lol

    I keep repeating to myself, and hoping I make it stick: “I will not pay an Ivy-level price for a non-Ivy school!”


  5. I could have also added a photo of our current Supreme Court judges to this post since apparently all of them attended Ivy league schools.


  6. “I keep repeating to myself, and hoping I make it stick: “I will not pay an Ivy-level price for a non-Ivy school!””

    That’s good. Is that inspired by the old ad, “I am not going to pay a lot for a muffler!”?


  7. ‘Is that inspired by the old ad, “I am not going to pay a lot for a muffler!”’

    Probably – I had forgotten about that ad. Funny!


  8. Bonnie, all those statistics about how for-profits are grabbing a disproportional share of taxpayer money and producing graduates (and non-graduates) with poorer outcomes must be tempered with the fact that students in these schools serve more disadvantaged students than the non-profits do. That being said, the fact that the 15 largest for-profit schools “received 86 percent of their revenues from federal student aid programs” is depressing, and reminiscent of other businesses milking the taxpayers for their own benefit. I’m generally inclined toward fewer taxpayer-funded ventures rather than more, so all this money flowing to them doesn’t make me happy. Even the ones with noble-sounding goals often squander money.

    Regarding all those other activities that universities spend money on, it’s often hard for parents to see the value to their kid that’s paying high tuition rates. I realize there are benefits sometimes, but it’s not always easy to see.


  9. Thanks for those links, Bonnie. It definitely is something that parents do not think about when writing those tuition checks.

    The problem with those 2nd or 3rd tier colleges is that they often cost as much as the 1st tier schools. It remains to be seen how much the quality of education will suffer as teaching is unlinked (or delinked?) from other activities in the higher ed reform movement. It seems clear that linking research to instruction, for instance, is more important in some fields than in others.


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