College Costs have risen because of competition? And Government Help?

In the 1950’s and 1960’s I don’t recall a national rating system on how good colleges were.  High school guidance counselors and others had ideas on which colleges in their region of the country were good quality schools, but I don’t really remember a rating system on a national basis.  Some time – probably in the 1970’s – there started to be rating systems by national publications so that by the 1980’s and 1990’s it was possible to read news magazines and other sources that put out national ratings of colleges based on slightly different criteria, but most had a rankings and a score.  Most colleges are “not-for-profit” organizations.  But not-for-profit organizations can still compete.  After I left my job with a large “for-profit” corporation, I was involved for several years with “not-for -profit”organizations – both as a board member and as a consultant.  If non-for -profit organizations are to survive, they still need to at least have enough revenue to cover expenses.  Revenue can be either charges for services or contributions or both.  They are allowed to have more income than expenses – a profit – but if they do they don’t have to pay income taxes, and their contributors get tax deductions for their contributions.  All their revenue doesn’t come from customers, which may make them more competitive in some ways, because they also compete for donors.

When I was in college, there were a number of teachers who had work experience and some did not have PhD’s.  A few had not worked outside the classroom.  The best math teacher I had did not have a doctorate although he obviously had knowledge beyond what was required in classes at the freshman and sophomore levels.  He also understood what things we might struggle to understand and he knew how to help us with those things.  My worst math teacher was supposed to be the most brilliant mathematician in the department.  He seemed to think we should understand everything he said without questions,.  So he never took questions or seemed to understand why we might struggle with certain concepts.  The best engineering professor I had, was one who had worked in industry for several years.  He understood how some things were applied.  The worst engineering professor had doctors degree but had never had a job outside of academia.  He understood the theory, but not the practical application.  The same was true in graduate business school.  The best professors were the ones with experience outside the class room.

Today colleges seem to emphasize the desire to have PhD’s as instructors whether they have any practical experience or not.  I suspect that this is the result of the numerous rating systems that have been developed.  Most of the rating systems that I am familiar with are based on objective empirical data like how many of your teaching staff have doctorates and what is the student – teacher ratio and the average classroom size.  These rating people are commended for trying to be fair and objective rather than judgemental.  But the difficulty is that to rate the quality of an education program requires some judgement of the results, not just the input.  The bottom line result of any educational process is “how well are the graduates prepared for “real life and work?”  This requires some judgemental evaluation of the results.  Theory is always logical and sounds good, but it doesn’t always work in practice.  Experience helps learn what actually works in practice.

My early boss who liked to say that “the best government in a benevolent dictator, except dictators tend not to stay benevolent”, also liked to say on occasion “that’s a hell of a good idea, the only thing is, it’s not worth a sh_t”.   Theories are logical good ideas but they may not always work in practice.  instructors who only know the theory without the experience of knowing what really is needed and works in practice are not, I believe, the best teachers.  Experience may in many cases may be a better teacher.  In 1490, all the learned people believed the that the earth was flat and that the sun circled the earth. There was logic for this theory, but  Columbus sitting in the port of Genoa  watching the ships come across the sea to dock in the harbour decided the world was round.  This belief changed the world.  What Bill Gates and Steve Jobs saw, changed our world and it could not have been learned in the classroom at that time.

But colleges to survive and thrive need students and donors.  It helps if they ge rated highly by the rating systems.  And the rating systems look at how many teachers have doctorates as well as how many student applications the schools have.  So they become very competitive.  To attract students they need high ratings, they also need comfortable environments – not necessarily dorms I had with 10′ by 10′ rooms and bathrooms at the end of the hall, but apartments with built-in amenities.  And if you’ve been paying attention, the highest public employees in most states are college football coaches (most are in the top 5% of all annual incomes).  The next highest paid ar the men’s basketball coaches.  What have college football coaches got to do with quality education?  Not much, but a winning football team in the top-tier attracts students and donors.  When my daughter was at the University of Tulsa, a lot of her fellow students told me that being a division I sports school was important to their selection.  Not long after, I was working with a law firm in Boston and they told me that after Boston College became a national name in football, donations went up considerably and not just for sports.  Then the government helped by making student loans available to most students.  The colleges were raising their costs by competing with each other in ways that did not have much to do with student class room success.  But they were able to raise tuition (their price to customer)  because of the availability of  student loans made by or guaranteed by the government.   The result of all this may not be good for any of us.  What do you think?

The other thing that has happened is that the schools have gotten “politically correct”.  The professional staff has never worked in industry and only knows companies by the negative stuff reported in the news.  And the news mostly reports negative stuff that will draw viewers or readers (“If it bleeds, it leads”).  So it is not surprising that the guy graduating in finance found that most college professors have a negative view of industry.  And they are working for an organization that by their “not-for -profit” status are officially recognized as existing for the benefit of the public.  So they are on the Holy Ground.

But are they really?  Part of the benefits of college should not just be a better job, in a democracy it’s also important to have educated voters.  Most of the issues of the day are scientific, economic, or cultural.  When I was in college, freshman and sophomores were required to take courses in history, science and math regardless of their major.  In the 1950’s and 60’s the history requirement was Western Civilization; today is should be world history, and the math should be statistics.  Statistics is the least intuitive, most used and often mis-used math by the news.  Most of today’s issues don’t have easy or perfect answers, so understanding the pluses and minuses of each alternative is important.  The possible solutions are kind of like Winston Churchill’s famous comment on Democracy – ir’s not perfect, but it’s better than any other alternative that we have tried.  But some of these required courses weren’t popular with the students (my hang-up was on the foreign language requirement which I managed to avoid, but now wish that I had taken.)  So some colleges have apparently eliminated some or most of these requirements for the reason (I suspect) of attracting more student applications to help their ratings.

Most colleges seem to want to be “politically correct” so as not to be reported negatively in the news.  They are generally being staffed with faculty not only devoid of any real work experience but leaning toward a particular political persuasion.  The result is that many colleges and universities have restricted campus debate on different issues.  Many of us think that college is the one place in life where one should be exposed to, and learn about the various alternative positions.  Apparently this is no longer the  case and one result is  the Finance major’s article in the Wall Street Journal about the anti-business bent at his university.  It has also led to a recent article in the New York times, under the headlines, “College Students Protest, Alumni Fondness Fades and Checks Shrink”

While I don’t have a magic answer to making college education more useful, maybe the idea that “checks shrink” will bring about some changes.  On balance, I still value my college experience and would like to see college education continue on a reasonable, open, and balanced basis.  And that may require colleges to return to their basic objective of serving the population rather than competing for a better standing in the ratings poles and enhancing their own prestige.





About tjc13

BE - Chem Engineering, Vanderbilt Univ, MBA, University of Tulsa - Worked for an energy and chemical company for many years and then started a management consulting business working for both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.
This entry was posted in Business, Economics, Education, History, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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