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Three Cheers for High Tuition

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Tuition hikes at public universities aren't necessarily a moral problem. They might be a symptom of progress.

In July, a new regime took effect for Virginia’s public colleges and universities. UVa, Virginia Tech, and William and Mary immediately acted under the new law to claim greater control over hiring, tuition, capital projects, and fundraising. There’s no question how these new freedoms will be used: Virginia’s public universities, like those in other states, want a free hand to seek private donations, increase tuition, and offer higher faculty salaries to compete with elite private institutions. As in other states, the legislature’s parsimony and micromanagement have frustrated these aims.

RotundaA 2001 report found that tuition levels at Virginia’s public universities were among the highest in the nation—and that’s before this summer’s relaxation of the rules. One reason tuition bills are already so high is the growing fraction of costs borne directly by students. According to the report, “In the public sector, more than half of the added tuition revenue from 1982 to 2000 represents increases in the share of educational costs borne by students to compensate for decreases in state general fund support.” The report found that a substantial and growing fraction of students opted out of public higher education in Virginia due to its cost. That trend will only accelerate under the new rules.

Should we worry? Anthony Grafton, the prolific scholar and public intellectual, says yes. The increasing autonomy, rising tuitions, and fundraising prowess of what were once strictly state institutions strike him as a “failure of democratic will,” a retreat from the ideal of a widely accessible, publicly subsidized high-quality option for higher education. That ideal dates from the Morrill Act of 1862, under which states received large grants of federal land to create colleges that would “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.” The Morrill Act created the familiar fact of each state having one or two primary, state-sponsored universities. After World War II, the educational provisions of the GI Bill operated on a similar rationale to extend access to government-sponsored higher education to a larger part of the public.

The ideal of making higher education widely accessible, though still present, has receded somewhat. State schools now tend to worry more about excellence—both in their core academic pursuits, where honors colleges cater to the top students, and in ancillary areas such as collegiate athletics, where the phrase “stadium boondoggle” has been given a whole new meaning.

But understanding the high cost of college as a simple moral failure would be a mistake. The truth is that American universities have been phenomenally successful at expanding the stock of human knowledge—and more knowledge entails higher university costs.

When our knowledge grows, it takes more scholars to complete a university.

Modern academics often liken their work to drinking from a fire hose. Historians, philosophers, and physicists all find it impossible to keep up with every potentially relevant paper or study. It’s not just a matter of catching up to the state of the art—one couldn’t even read the research materials in an academic field as fast as they are being produced. Inevitably, this leads scholars to retreat further and further into sub-specialization, narrowing the horizon of what counts as “relevant,” of what their fields consist in. But the side effect of this constant, fractal division of the range of human knowledge is that more and more scholars are needed to cover the same range of topics. A hundred years ago, a biologist could plausibly aspire to know all the important theories and facts contained within the field of biology. But today, there are people working on genetics, proteomics, virology, ecology, and a host of other fields, each of which is a full-time, fully mind-absorbing pursuit in its own right.

This all makes sense once one recognizes that professors are the conduits carrying our accumulated knowledge into the present. Having access to something that is written in a book is not the same thing as knowing it. In order for knowledge to be available and useful here and now, someone must be practically familiar with it. And the more knowledge there is to “cover,” as it were, with practical familiarity, the greater the number of scholars needed to complete a university. This means both more professors now and a greater number of those honors undergrads, training for the professoriate. A greater throughput of accumulated knowledge among successive generations requires an ever-increasing number of conduits.

As our knowledge—particularly scientific knowledge—increases, technology lightens the burdens of housework, manual labor, rote computation, and other necessary pursuits. More and more of us, from technicians to university professors, are called upon primarily to know things. We should be pleased at this trend, and pleased to continue it. The same forces that make college more costly are also making clothing, housing, food, and entertainment cheaper and better.

It might be a good idea to redouble our efforts to make public higher education affordable. But the increasing share of our resources directed to learning and knowing is something we ought to be proud of.

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