A Retired poo-bah asks 17 Higher Ed questions. Here are answers…


The “global warming” scam has been running for 20 years now. Back when it started and people were buying into it, I tried to point out obvious issues, such as clear evidence the climate was warmer during Roman times…and clearly the climate didn’t change because the Romans weren’t driving around in SUVs. It did little good, since everyone would point to “published research” or supposed consensus amongst scientists saying that we were all doomed, and would likely be dead before 2010, if not sooner.

A curious thing happened since then: as scientists retired, they became far more outspoken against the claims of global warming…with no longer being paid to believe in global warming, they didn’t believe.

The same thing happens in higher ed. It’s obvious we need to ask some serious questions about what we’re doing in higher education (and education in general)…but the people running education don’t seem to see anything wrong with our system at all.

A current senator used to be a college president. Now that he’s no longer reliant upon higher ed, he suddenly is asking the questions I’ve asked more than a few times in this blog:

17 Questions Every College Should Be Asking

He has an extensive preamble before getting to the important questions and I want to highlight a few of the things he has to say:

Our oldest kid is a senior in high school, so like a lot of American households, our whole family is visiting campuses and comparing colleges.

Keep in mind how far removed this guy is from the typical American. Anyone else out there both financially and leisurely capable of taking the whole family to visit multiple campuses? There really is a caste in our country which takes private jets to tour college campuses. You’re not in it. He is.

…it is decreasingly clear what purpose a four-year degree should serve when technology is changing the nature of work…

Yeah, no kidding. Thing is, a university degree was never intended for “the working class,” but the student loan scam slammed pretty much everyone on to campus. So now the question that never needed to be asked is now being asked: “of what use is this degree to the working class?”

I don’t want to sound elitist, but not everyone is going to get white collar jobs, even if everyone is now going to get a mountain of debt which supposedly will be paid for by such jobs. Maybe we shouldn’t put everyone into higher ed? Then we wouldn’t be asking what job a degree is for…

Today’s graduate will typically change not just jobs but industries three times in his or her first decade post-college.

See, this is something that education might be helpful for, since a big part of education is learning how to learn. That’s something you’ll want to have if you’re going to be changing jobs regularly. Today’s reality that you’re not going to keep a job with a regular paycheck is true enough, but it’s also today’s reality that loan payments need to paid regularly…the system is still broken as long as student loans exist.

So let’s get started on the senator’s questions, and see how often “student loans are the problem” is part of the answer.

Tuition consistently rises faster than inflation—why? Does tuition increase because costs are up, or are costs up because universities can increase prices?

Well, that was quick. It’s well known that student loans are the key reason tuition rises. The loans are “for tuition,” not for a set price, so…why doesn’t the Poo-Bah already know the problem here?

Off to the next:

Could we possibly slow our cost growth? Should we plot a scenario with five years of flat tuition?

While theoretically the answers to the above are “yes” and “yes,” the reality is student loans make such activity pointless. Why slow cost growth or plan for flat tuition when no matter what the expenses or tuition, the students are right there ready to make up the difference.

Even with fewer students pouring on to campus, that just means you raise tuition all the more.

Is the student-debt crisis as bad as journalists claim? Will there be new pathways for students with limited financial resources?

As bad as journalists claim? Wait, what? This isn’t the journalists’ fault, senator. Total student loan debt runs around $1.6 trillion dollars, the average graduation starts live $30,000 in debt. The later might not sound like much money for someone who has the time and money to take the whole family on junkets to visit various universities but, yes, it’s very bad for normal people.

…critics argue that most schools are content to compete with “identical mediocrity but better gyms.” For what, with whom, and on what dimensions should our institution compete?

The answer here is a bit more subtle. The reasons schools are competing with “gyms” is two-fold. First, accreditation (the set of rules which allows a school to rake in student loan money) doesn’t care in the least about education…all a school needs to do is meet the minimum accrediting requirements there.

Second? The school needs to attract students, and the “gyms” are being used as shorthand here for student amenities, which include climbing walls, lazy rivers, and, yes, gyms.

Because all schools equally qualify for student loans, there’s no particular advantage to being anything but mediocre, if that much.

What is quality, and how should it be measured? Are our programs rigorous enough? Are our students learning enough? Should we care about (and seek to measure somehow) their development outside the classroom?

These are some hard questions but the student loan scam makes them all irrelevant, so let’s answer the last question first: the student loans mean schools have no skin in the game once students step off campus, so schools don’t care. Students generate the same revenue regardless of learning, so nobody cares about student learning. Student loans don’t care about rigor, so nobody cares if the programs are rigorous enough.

Let me put this in an allegory. Suppose you sold candy bars, and you were guaranteed to sell 10,000 candy bars a year, at $500 each…even if all you did was put a lump of chocolate in a wrapper…a half of a lump would sell for just as much, just as often, for that matter. Why bother with the expense and effort of making anything better than that? That’s the issue with student loans/tuition right now, the baseline profit is so high, the baseline of effort accreditation requires so low, that there’s no motivation to improve higher education right now.

What is quality and how should it be measured? This also doesn’t matter. The only thing that’s ever been measured closely in my 30 years of higher ed was how many students I was keeping in class…because that’s reflected in the student loan money.

That’s the first five sets of questions the former Poo-Bah asks here…next time around I’ll address the rest.