Colleges just announced that while most classes will occur online, schools will not reduce tuition. Students have tried to sue to get their tuition decreased and the schools have prevailed.

College administrators are telling us online college is MORE expensive for schools than in-person college. But wait. Does this mean there is MORE VALUE in online college? Because we just lived through Zoom education and no one likes it.

Colleges are not creating value.

Really, it’s not that online college is more expensive for schools because it’s more valuable. It’s more expensive because of all the lost revenue schools incur. Room and board losses totaled $100 million for University of Wisconsin. And Stanford projects a $620 million loss of revenue this coming school year. But the real cost of online college is cancelling the NCAA tournament ($375 million lost) and the football season ($4 billion lost).

Colleges stifle education innovation.

So things are looking terrible for colleges and they are trying to convince kids to return to school anyway. But then Trump threw a zinger: Deporting all international students who take all their classes online. This is a moment of irony, really. I’m sure some university lobbyists pushed through a law that says you have to take the majority of your classes in person to get a student visa. That way established universities so they don’t have to compete with upstart online universities for international students. No one wants to share international students because they account for $41 billion in revenue for US colleges.

The bottom 50% of colleges are a scam.

Trump backed down off of international students, but it looks like a lot of colleges may go bankrupt anyway. But maybe that doesn’t matter, because the Atlantic says that if you can’t get into the top 50% of private colleges or the top 30% of public colleges, then it’s not worth paying to go to college at all.  So it seems that the bankruptcy of bottom-ranked colleges is not so bad.

Colleges reinforce the economic status quo.

For those schools that survive, I think we will need to have more honest conversations about what, really, is the value of higher education in the US. The New York Times shows that most colleges do not create social mobility. Even poor students who go to the Ivy League do not get out of poverty. Few people would say higher education should exist to solidify the 1%, but we are getting close to that anyway.

College diversity programs avoid US-born Black kids.

Also, in the midst of a Black Lives Matter groundswell, we need to face that diversity in colleges comes from the international students. For example, Yale ranks #1 for diversity, but if you remove the international students, Yale drops to #44 for diversity. This means that after decades of pushing colleges to admit more Black kids, colleges talked a big game about diversity, but admitted foreign students instead of Black kids from the US.

The value of college is to create social mobility.

Now that I am learning about White supremacy culture, I am see the ubiquitous undermining of Black financial stability by US institutions. There is going to be a big shakeup in higher education because it’s not viable in its’ current state. When that shakeup comes, we should insist that colleges define their value in terms of creating social mobility and including Black students in that equation.

Otherwise, if colleges cannot figure out how to elevate Black students, then we need to defund colleges just like we are defunding police. We cannot afford to spend any more time or money on organizations that refuse to change.

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8 replies
  1. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    PT, I really liked this post, and the links. This is a subject I’ve been thinking about since I went to college myself. On the one hand, going to college was a sort of salvation for me, because I did not like the people I was surrounded by in school, and I found the classes in college so much more interesting. On the other hand, I was very aware that the people at college were mostly from very different backgrounds than mine. A lot of my classmates were people I would only meet in real life if I were waiting on them (indeed, some of them were people I did meet later in real life when I was waiting on them, and they looked right through me).

    On the one hand, I found the proclamation with which my son was greeted in Kindergarten: “Every one of you is going to college!” to be absurd and counterproductive. If every one of those kids really goes to college, a fair number of them will end up with massive debt to no good purpose. Meanwhile, we still need contractors, plumbers, electricians, cops, firefighters… On the other hand, I saw for myself that as early as the eighties the balance between higher education’s role in enabling class mobility and its role in solidifying class structure was tipping towards the latter. By now, it’s practically capsized.

    There is a (small) group of kids for whom going to a good college is like deus ex machina. I’d be interested to see more studies of this group. Has it gotten bigger or smaller over time? What is its composition? How does one reliably identify these kids?

    One of the fascinating developments you point to is how diversity initiatives in the top colleges have come to favor certain groups over others, even within ethnic groups. At Harvard, if you’re Black, you’re almost certainly from the West Indies or Africa, not from generations of being Black in America. How many of the Hispanics counted at top colleges are the Spanish-surnamed children of upper middle-class families, instead of kids escaping generations of poverty? When we speak of poverty in terms of race, we sometimes falter in our aim. Every system is susceptible to manipulation and undermining of its original purpose. I’ve heard of people intentionally giving their kids particular names, or even moving to certain states, in order to game college admissions priorities. Any method of gaming the system is going to benefit certain groups over others.

    These are thorny problems to address. The only thing harder than understanding our social problems is writing good policy that can actually help ameliorate them, instead of creating yet another loophole that can be exploited by the savvy, paired with yet another cost that drives up prices for everybody else. It’s a nice time if you get lucky with scholarships at college, but everybody else is paying through the nose.

    When we talk about public funding for universities, we should consider what those funding vehicles actually are, and what it would mean to remove them. It’s true that the universities are doing an ever-worse job of providing opportunities for all, but do you know what the single biggest category of public spending on universities is? It’s Pell grants, at 27.7B. Most of that money goes to kids with family income under 20K a year. Is that really what we want to zero out? Will that help tip the balance of higher education’s function towards equality of opportunity? I doubt it.

    In the Federal bucket, the next two categories by size are federal research funding, at 26.5B, and federal veterans educational benefits, at 13.6B. Are those the things we want to stop? Personally, I’d rather not. Those three categories alone add up to 90.6% of federal support for higher education. The rest is negligible, and still mostly for financial aid.

    Okay, so maybe we should go after state money. After all, only 21.2B of state higher education funding goes to financial aid and research. There’s a bigger pot there in 66B of “general appropriations.” Let’s take our fair Commonwealth. How are we doing? Massachusetts has cut higher education spending per student by 31% since 2001, including scholarships. The rate of public expenditure per 1K of personal income now puts Massachusetts at 43rd in the nation. What’s the effect been? As state funding went down, tuition and fees went up. The cost to attend UMass has gone up by $5,400. This means that the student share of the cost of higher education has increased from around 30% to around 56%. Debt on public college grads is way up. That means more of the economic benefits of their education is going to banks and less is being spent locally. Is that good enough, or should we cut more?

    One of the things to consider when talking about public higher education contributions is the role of state higher education institutions in a state’s growth. It’s not a zero-sum game, but states are inescapably in competition with each other. Students who attend public universities tend to stay in the state where they studied. If a state drastically cuts its public support for higher education, it will drive students to other states, where they will get educations and stay, using those degrees to the benefit of their new states. In a longer view, some claim that state support for higher education is an investment, not an expense, as the result is a better-educated workforce making more money and paying more taxes.

    The condemnation of college as a rip-off for many kids is a moving and virtuous pronouncement. But how do we get from there to policy that, more than well-intentioned, is effective? Policy that doesn’t actually make the situation worse?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Wow, this is so thoughtful and you ask a great question at the end. I think you might answer your question at the beginning: very few kids need to be going to college.

      There is so much about college that is useless to almost everyone: studying in-depth random topics. Writing ten-page papers. Meeting with professors to talk about 400-page books. Doing this stuff is for the joy of book learning. Less than half the world learns best through books. And people who do love to learn through books certainly don’t need to be told by a teacher to read books.

      So when you ask where the money should come from, we should start with the $27.7B in Pell Grants. The money is coming way too late in a kid’s life to make a difference. And the grants prop up universities (communities of rich kids) instead of low-income communities.

      When you get rid of Pell Grants a lot of state universities will not be financially viable. That will free up more resources to solve the problems of systemic poverty that have much more impact on a kid’s future than schooling does.

      I also think funding for research should be cut. The profession with the most satisfaction — in every poll I’ve ever seen — is scientist. That’s because it’s the only profession where you get to do what you love, under very little supervision, with low risk, and get paid a lot. Scientists go into science because they can’t imagine doing anything else. They don’t need to be paid that much. I think it’s similar to doctors. Their salaries are a big cause of the messed-up healthcare system. And the scientist salaries are a big cause of the messed-up research funding system.

      Right now our advances in science are not helping the low-income communities. Those communities need money to access the advances we’ve already made. The fact that Covid’s impact is mostly on Black people is a great example. It’s basic health care disparities that we have known about for two decades. We need to fix those before we keep looking into more science.

      Our research spending seems like funding the space program — we should clean up earth instead of spending money looking for a way to distract ourselves.


      • Bostonian
        Bostonian says:

        I think if we’re not careful with generalizations, sometimes we veer off into hyperbole, and then our point may get lost. For example, I question the idea that “every one” of the kids must go to college, and say it’s not the right thing for a “fair number” of them. Your response begins with “very few,” and then accelerates to “almost everyone” finding the things taught in college useless. I think these are exaggerations.

        Per recent studies. e.g. Georgetown’s study on Job Growth and Education Requirements through 2020, 35% of job openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree, and 30% of job openings will require some college or an associate’s degree. Only 36 percent of job options will not require education beyond high school. That sounds about right to me. So more than a third of my Kindergartener’s classmates would have wasted their time and money by going to college. But most of them should go to college, not very few of them, because people should get the education required to do the jobs our society has for people.

        If too many people lack the education needed to get the jobs, then two things happen: the pay for the jobs that require scarce education goes up; and the pay for jobs not requiring education, which are oversupplied with candidates, goes down. That sounds like where we have been for a while now. If too many people have the education needed for the jobs, different things happen, including pay for skilled jobs going down and unpaid educational debt going up. Oddly, that’s been happening too, but in different areas. So there does seem to be a mismatch between the education provided and the education needed.

        Once again, it is so much harder to write good policy than it is to criticize societal problems. Sure, if we abolished Pell Grants, a lot of state schools might go bust. Another thing that would happen is that a lot of poor kids would stop being able to go to college at all, and the function of college would tip even farther towards the class structure maintenance side. Not having to compete with smart poor kids would be the best deal ever for dumb rich kids. If there’s been any pattern in the cost changes in higher education over the last few decades, that’s been the direction. I would rather turn that around than accelerate it.

        Now, as to job satisfaction, I’d be interested to see what polls you’ve been looking at to find that Scientists are at the top. It’s not glassdoor, which puts Recruiting Manager at the top. It’s not USA Today, which puts Genetic Counselor at the top. It’s not careercast, which puts Clergy at the top. Honestly, some of the polls seem to have ridiculous results: indeed puts Flight Attendant at the top. I heard on the radio the other day it’s Carpenters. Go figure. But I don’t think it’s actually scientists, certainly not those scientists who work at universities. Know why? They have to spend so much of their time chasing grants they don’t get to spend enough time doing science. The job satisfaction of doctors has been going down as well, as they spend less and less time practicing medicine and more and more time doing paperwork and arguing with insurance companies. Do we really want to discourage science? Discourage R&D? I feel like we all benefit, even if unequally, from the money paid to support science at universities.

        The fact that COVID’s impact is heaviest on Black people is a great example for my position too: like other health problems, Black people suffer the most from COVID. Life without COVID is already a marathon of stress for the poor and for Black people, so of course if you add COVID the effects are worse. But how are we going to cure COVID without R&D? The fastest out of the gate for a COVID virus is a team working out of Oxford University. I’d like to have that vaccine out so we can all get back to normal. They might have it later this year, because they were well supported at that university by government investment.

        Second in the race right now is Moderna, which received a $483M award from the US government agency BARDA to fund that development. Also in the race are Regeneron, which got $450M, and Novavax, which got $1.6B. Was that a waste of money too? Will having a vaccine for COVID not help Black people? Should we stop spending government money on that research and instead spend the money on pre-natal care and diabetes screening? Private industry would have come up with a vaccine by itself, on a slower timetable, without government help. In that meantime, who would be hurt the most?

        You said in the previous paragraph that you think doctors should be paid less, in addition to scientists. If doctors are paid less, then who is going to provide this pre-natal care, diabetes screening, etc. to poor and Black populations? You pay people less, and fewer people want to do those jobs. If you want to have more doctors for Black people rather than fewer, then it stands to reason that doctors should be paid more to do those jobs, not less. And do you know what Black people need more than anything to improve their health? More Black doctors! Read the study in HBR. How are we going to get more Black doctors if we give up on public funding at universities?

  2. KS
    KS says:

    I agree so much that the problem is actually ahead of the higher ed. My husband is a professor and it is shocking how poorly prepared many students are. The most notable students he has come across have been homeschooled or are incredibly self-motivated. We mostly interact with engineering and science students- the ones who come in with educational/other disadvantages are highly supported (tutoring, extra time, social supports/community, etc) and it is still a struggle to retain them in rigorous programs.

    Also, on the international student thing. I don’t think it was lobbyists. The international students we know said they were told this was an old rule (Can’t be an online international student, which makes sense) that ICE decided to enforce in this pandemic/emergency situation (which does not make sense).

  3. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I have also thought much about the value of my higher education. I think I made out very well as I went to a private university and yet paid public tuition rates as the college within the university was state-sponsored. It was also a highly regarded college known worldwide. It was also a small university campus where the professors taught the courses to the undergraduates rather than graduate students.
    Now I look at tuition rates and consider other factors and I don’t see the value. Well, at least the value for low and middle-income class families. Also, one of the reasons families are smaller today is because parents are looking at astronomical higher education expenses and adjusting family size accordingly.
    I think it’s time for industry/established businesses to step up to the plate for their employees’ higher education expenses in some manner and by some formula that’s acceptable and a win-win for both parties. The employee has up until now been required to shoulder the higher education expense burden prior to knowing how they would fit into an industry or company. I think a company should employ top-notch human resource personnel that can spot high school graduate talent and then provide necessary experience and classroom or other types of instruction that would result in a college degree or an industry-wide recognizable certificate. It seems to me an employee who’s learning new things every day and gaining new skills would be a happy employee more likely to stay with a company than look elsewhere.

  4. Joe
    Joe says:

    For example, Yale ranks #1 for diversity, but if you remove the international students, Yale drops to #44 for diversity. This means that after decades of pushing colleges to admit more Black kids, colleges talked a big game about diversity, but admitted foreign students instead of Black kids from the US.”

    Given that many of the International students are Black, the question is not “Why doesn’t Yale admit Black kids?” but rather, why doesn’t Yale admit them from the US? Their admissions policies seem less about color and more about something else.

  5. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I just watched a very good video interview which includes a transcript dated July 24 over at TechRepublic which describes my idea above. The article with embedded video can be found by searching for the title – “Internal developer bootcamps and training programs can help companies drive long-term success”. The interview is with Dave Hoover who is co-founder of Dev Bootcamp, is a coder, author, founder of CEO of Red Squirrel, a custom software developer firm, and CTO at GoLogic. His vision (or maybe I should say customer’s vision as he was contacted by the company) is in the process of being implemented at a company in Northern Italy. As the article says – “they’re interested in us creating, basically a temporary bootcamp, so a transitional education program to help transition a good number of people, dozens or potentially hundreds of folks into a career in software development from a more blue collar to factory-focused work.” Dave Cooper at Red Squirrel makes many insightful comments about learning including the difference between those people who are good teachers and those people who are good mentors.

  6. Jenn
    Jenn says:

    I grew up in a poor neighborhood. I’ve seen some stellar academic all-stars that were destined for U of Penn or Temple but either they went for 2 years and went back to the old neighborhood or they graduated, tried to make it in the city in their field and again went back into the old neighborhood, here are some of the reasons:

    1. No one cared or respected (Envy) the fact they had the golden ticket. It became a burden on them. No one you grew up with wants to be around you anymore because they can’t relate. The only time they did is when you went on a basketball or football scholarship so they can say they know someone who plays in the NCAA or College top 10. Obviously this goes for males. Females don’t have this problem. Most female friendships are Pseduo so its easy for a female to give them up or keep them going because they are not genuine.

    2. Because of # 1, this graduate or student becomes lonely. Especially males. The Black and Hispanic community are very tight nit group. they depend heavily on each other. Most of their family lives within a mile of each other if not on the same 4 block radius. U leave the group, you get lonely. Joining the Armed Forces or again being involved in sports will lift this burden some because it has some of the close nit similarities.

    3. Because of # 1 and #2, your family now sees you as their way out and ask you for help buying a house, car, cover funeral expenses, hospital expenses, education for others, and court/lawyer costs.

    4. The biggest hold up for women is the BF factor or boyfriend factor. If you have a boyfriend in High School, you are more likely not to finish school. School is too much of a distraction otherwise some other girl is going to take your guy that will pay attention to him 24/7

    In short, a minority graduating from Ivy League has his past, his family, his neighborhood stacked against him. Only if he has a selfless mother and/or father that keep pushing him to achieve and ignore the call of his neighborhood will that man have a chance to succeed. No College can help with that……


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