I’ll be too busy this weekend to do much so I’m trying to get a step ahead on the #DiYUread project.

This chapter could have been titled “Why does college cost so much?”, since that’s the question Kamenetz is essentially trying to answer.  She puts forward a few theories (straight supply/demand, the expense of building amenities and competing for students, cost shifting, government dependence) , saying  “Each explanation has its validity, each appeals to a different constituency, and each calls for a different approach to a solution.”(51)  I see it more as an instance of convergent cost evolution.

Just as species not closely related may develop similar adaptations to compete in similar environments, different classes of institution have done the same thing (raise tuition) to respond to different pressures.  Public institutions have dealt with cost shifting.  Many institutions have tried to climb what Kevin Carey calls the “status ladder” (57).  Heaven help the public institutions who have been trying to climb the status ladder.  Different colleges have had different reasons for raising tuition, but they’ve all raised tuition. The notion of subsidy as inflationary pressure seems to me the only one that is broadly applicable, since I can’t think of a college that doesn’t take federal money.

I don’t know what public institutions can do about cost shifting, particularly the ones that aren’t building climbing walls, apartment style student housing and the like.  I do wonder if cost shifting is part of a larger shift in how society views education — away from a public good and toward an individual investment.  I think you see this in the growth of loans.  Students are told it’s OK to go into debt and pay for it later out of the increased earnings you have as a degreed person.  Kamenetz points out that that logic only works in certain disciplines (not including the liberal arts – see my post on chapter 2).  This works to some degree in the graduate school world through the subsidy/earnings tradeoff.  Those who go to professional school (law or medicine for example) pay nearly full price but can expect high salaries when they get out.  Those doing graduate degrees in the humanities (where one will likely as not end up cobbling together a living out of adjunct positions)  are much more likely to be  subsidized while in school with assistantships.  We can see some of this in the model of providing student loan forgiveness for those who enter public service positions after school (teaching, etc.)

It’s easy to say that institutions should just step off the treadmill, but much harder to actually do, even though it may be an important way to control costs. Not only is belief in growth a key part of the American mindset, but any single institution trying to turn against the herd will likely get stampeded.  The community college sector provides as close to a low frills option as we have.  Could you deliver 4 year degrees in the same model, or is becoming a Baccalaureate granting institution inevitably stepping on to the status ladder?

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