Free College?

Fenster writes:

Perhaps as punishment for having been a manager for so long, or maybe simply as a form of cosmic social justice, I find myself at a relatively advanced age a union member.  I got to be a faculty member late in my career, and at a heavily unionized public university.

I was never much a fan of unions.  That was hard to help.  You’re a manager, especially a senior one, and you take on the world view.

In fairness to my bias, as a manager it was not hard to spot inefficiencies in the union approach.  And most of my experience has been in the nonprofit and government side, where the rationale for unions is weaker than on the industrial side, and where there often really is only so much money to go around.  In sitting across the table from respected faculty counterparts, I often felt that the entire process dumbed down the mission basis of a college, exiling consideration of things that would make for a better institution (especially for students) while converting all matters into comp and work rules.

By contrast, where “real” (private sector) unions are concerned, I have come to feel that rough justice is sometimes the best that can be hoped for, and that rough justice is often just that: rough.

All well and good to venerate the market but in practice the operations of the market take place by means of human institutions with the power to affect other humans.  In turn, there is no escape from the world of institutions into an airy realm of the market, or any other fetishized construct.  Progress, such as it is, often takes place via the grinding together of large, institutional tectonic plates rather than through the invisible hand of the market or the sage wisdom of the expert.  Who gets to be a tectonic plate is under that view an important thing.

Alas, public sector unions (including the one I am a member of) are another matter.  They have a way harder time in the current era advancing their cause in a sensible way.

In that regard, here’s an article I read in the NEA newsletter that I get delivered at home.  In it, two professors at the chronically lefty UMass-Amherst make the case for free college.

The usual arguments are made.  Some touch on worthwhile matters.  The reduction in state appropriations for public higher education is, I agree, problematic.  But it is also understandable.  Among the reasons for the reduction in public financial support is reduction in public political support.  People–at least when wearing their taxpayer hats–are rightly skeptical that the money devoted to higher education is being well spent.

Now, of course the public will shift on a dime, so to speak, and complain about tuition when the bills come due.  But that does not diminish the fact that higher education’s problems are to a large extent of its own making.  The unions didn’t do that, but they have been complicit.  At the least, one would hope that forces that style themselves as progressive (and here I include the administration too) would have something relevant to say about real problems beyond the promotion of simple self-interest.

That is a not a simple matter.  Decades ago, the economist William Baumol theorized about a “cost disease” that infects certain economic activities.  The theory–critiqued by some but generally well regarded–holds that certain activities (like, say, an orchestra) are not able to realize the productivity gains found in most sectors of the economy because no matter what happens with advances in management techniques or technology you still need the violinists.  Higher education has long had this disease, as Baumol and his sometime collaborator Bill Bowen have noted.  There is, or has been, a need to have a professor in the front of each class–at least till the advent of educational technologies and the institutions working to develop them.

Given its tremendous inertial force, higher education has been able to resist technology’s productivity benefits for quite a while.  Now, Bowen has come round slowly to the notion that technology has advanced to the point where the cost disease may be contained and controlled.  But to do this means drastic changes in the way higher education is delivered.  And to not do this means . . . what?

More of the same,  most likely.

So how do our proponents of free education deal with this?  They don’t.  It’s just more of that old time religion.

Free is not enough. It has to be free quality education. That means we need more tenure-system faculty and full-time staff, better pay, benefits, and job security for adjunct faculty, and more support services.

Is this progressive?  Or conservative?

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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