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How to Make Higher Education Affordable

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Assuming state legislatures find the political will to defund courses on pornography, and the Congress ends the student-loan crony capitalism bonanza, what would a world of privatized universities look like? It could look very good, it turns out.

First of all, without subsidization, very few students are likely to pay out of their own pockets for useless degrees. Without a guaranteed flow of subsidies, the vast majority of non-STEM departments will, finally, close down. The universities—which have become a kind of large-scale government welfare program employing scholars who receive taxpayer funds to write articles about HBO and “audience studies” — would either go into receivership or else break up into smaller units, with the profitable ones (most likely engineering and the like) remaining in business. The hopeless ones (English, anthropology, all of the various “studies”) will finally give up the ghost.

Prices Will Fall to Meet Demand

This will be a good thing for college students and their parents. Without the artificial demand generated through taxpayer-funded subsidies, universities will be forced to lower their tuition prices to meet what students and their families are able and willing to pay. This new reality will force higher education institutions to adapt to the needs of students. Universities will become more inclined to allow for students to choose the courses they most want to take, without having to pad their studies with subjects extraneous to their chosen careers.

The accrediting agencies won’t like this, but ideally, the accrediting agencies will go out of business. In a world where accredited universities offer courses on pop music and television shows, the function of ensuring employers that students at institutions of higher learning are receiving a rigorous education has apparently slipped from the accrediting agencies’ grasp.

To make higher education work better for both employers and students, however, it will be necessary to first overturn any court case which makes it difficult for employers to test applicants in the skills needed for a particular industry.

Matching Up Students With Employers

As it is, most students now are in four- or two-year colleges simply for the sake of gaining entry into white-collar work. The disconnect between what students actually study and what they eventually end up doing has been a stock joke of American life for decades now.

Colleges today function as a non-specific government-subsidized screening method for many employers. But, to make the process far less expensive for both students and taxpayers, employers need only screen applicants as rigorously as they like through private testing and on-the-job experience.

Indeed, four or more years of sleeping through early-morning Spanish classes is less indicative of success in an office than is actually working in an office for that same amount of time. Those who fail employment tests could take exactly the courses they need to pass, and could skip the expense and the wasted time of slogging through Ottoman history in order to be deemed qualified to work on an oil rig.

Freeing Up Resources for Better Research

Many will object that this is anti-intellectual, but the contrary is true. There are serious scholars remaining in American academia today, but their work is hamstrung by administrative duties, endless faculty meetings, and increasingly, the looming threat of Title IX law suits hanging like swords of Damocles over their heads.

The solution is a system of private entrepreneurship. After all, private wealthy donors already give millions of dollars annually to university endowments. There is no reason — other than government regulations — why donors could not give the money directly to the professors, instead. If tax monies must be used for anything, let it be to stock and maintain libraries. For everything else, let the professors — the ones who know more about their subjects than anyone else — do whatever donors will allow them to do. If this includes giving lectures, that is all the better. Professors with a nice sinecure from a wealthy magnate would, in many cases, be able to give lectures for free. (This includes professors hired to do STEM research in a corporate setting. Free lectures by top researchers would be a perfect marketing tool to enhance a corporate brand.) And, if a professor’s honorarium were too high, then students would simply choose not to attend, or else find a similar version online or in person.

Far from being anti-intellectual, this model would free researchers to engage in pure intellectual discovery, undisturbed by the swarms of degree-seekers who are literally forced to take classes in subjects they despise merely for the sake of preserving the fiction that everyone benefits equally from attendance at a university. Relieved of the drudgery that ensues when the masses are made to endure education against their will, professors would be able to think, write, and say whatever their funders are willing to tolerate.

Releasing hordes of uninterested undergraduates to do something besides nap in calculus lectures all day would hardly be a fatal blow to calculus itself. The study of Jane Austen, algorithms, and asteroids would flourish without having to justify those subjects to bored, indebted, surly teenagers.

All of this will free up monies for students who do choose to spend a few years in serious study to enjoy all of the current perks of college life — and many more — at a fraction of the cost. If, for example, a student were able to take lectures for $3,000 a year instead of $30,000, then he or she could easily work part time, and pay his or her tuition. Professors could issue certificates of attendance at their lectures, or could give tests if they chose to and grade students however they pleased.

As things now stand, students, their parents, and the taxpayers of each state are being bilked out of billions of dollars a year. Administrators grow rich, universities run real professors out of their jobs in order to save money by hiring adjuncts, and students shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars each that could be kept in their pockets or else put toward learning what they want to learn. There are few outside of academia itself — and the financial sector that funds students loans — who benefit from our whirlpooling student debt. It is long past time to let the free market back into our universities and, finally, put their houses in order.

Jason Morgan is a 2016 Mises Institute Fellow and is studying history at the University of Wisconsin. Contact: email.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
Image source: "Alberto T" www.flickr.com/photos/nattg_arys/

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