The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Melanie Scarborough argues that colleges are sufficiently well-endowed that Congress should reduce tuition assistance:

The demand for more college seats creates a demand for more financial aid, and Congress blithely complies. Last week, the House passed a measure to spend an additional $20 billion on financial aid to students — the biggest boost since the G.I. bill of 1944. It did so not only without asking whether all the students eligible for financial aid need to be in college, but whether the colleges they will be attending need the additional money.
Last year, the average college endowment increased by 17 percent. Dozens of schools now have endowments of more than $1 billion — and it isn’t just the heavy hitters such as
Harvard University, which has an endowment of $35 billion. The University of Maryland’s Great Expectations campaign set a goal of $1 billion.

Even the University of Delaware’s endowment tops $1 billion. Spending just 1 percent of that money on financial aid would free $10 million for scholarships. When so many schools are flush with money, why does Congress continue to soak taxpayers?

Throwing money at schools that don’t need it to spend on students who don’t deserve it defines government waste.

One question is never asked, because too many people have a vested interest in not hearing the answer. To wit: To what extent is college education a public good?

I maintain that a supply of engineers, doctors, and other Sons of Martha, above what the free market would provide, is indeed a public good: precisely because these are the professions whose successes -- for example, a successful surgical operation, or a bridge that remains standing -- are unalloyed gains, rather than transfers.

This is in contrast to the competitive professions, notably law and investing, which produce social goods only in a very indirect way: better lawyers on average mean more predictable and faithful execution of the law, but in any specific case they attempt only to gain advantage for themselves. In any case, it is generally recognized that these highly compensated professions are their own reward.

The answer everyone knows, but no one wishes to say, related instead to the nation's legions of "fuzzies": media studies, art history and comparative literature majors. Here, rather than defend the dubious proposition that education in these subjects (in the minority of cases where that education is completed and used) adds social value, the backers of universal college education emphasize "personal growth" and "exposure to different ideas".

These concepts are not just profoundly selfish -- why should taxpayers fund your "personal growth" just because you happen to be 18-22 years old? -- but also insulting to anyone who actually works for a living. It implies that working, unlike sitting in lecture halls and attending afternoon keg parties, does not lead to any growth. But of course the truth is the opposite: that's why they call it growing up.