Universal College Education

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Directly below, Ian goes through the pro and con arguments for government subsidized universal college education, and his post should probably be read before this one.

But let me start by exclaiming LOUDLY that if this is about getting more people to study "soft" subjects in a college, I think that it is a terrible idea.

However, if we're going to socialize college, let's do it the sure Soviet way--without the idolatry of Marx and Lenin: cram in the math, engineering, and science. In fact, even if "soft" studies in undergraduate school become an entitlement in the US, the size, scope, and impact of the program will far outstrip the oft-lauded post-secondary educational aims of the Soviets:

As the country's major scientific and cultural centers, universities produced the leading researchers and teachers in the natural and mathematical sciences, social and political sciences, and humanities, e.g., literature and languages. They also developed textbooks and study guides for disciplines in all institutions of higher learning and for university courses in the natural sciences and humanities.

On the whole, Soviet society considered universities the most prestigious of all institutions of higher learning. Applicants considerably exceeded openings, and competition for entrance was stiff. Officially, acceptance was based on academic merit. In addition to successful completion of secondary schooling, prospective entrants had to pass extremely competitive oral and written examinations, given only once a year, in their area of specialization, as well as in Russian and a foreign language.

More important to note is the share of the adult Soviet populace with a university education:

Of the population aged 15 or older in 1989, 49 percent had graduated from a secondary or vocational school and 11 percent had completed a higher education. The narrow proficiency typically acquired, however, dampened creativity and was often out of step with the labor market.
I know 15 is young, but comparable numbers are available from this table. (35327+12259+2821+2215)=52622 and 52622/225250=23%. So current US higher educational attainment is roughly twice that of the Soviet Union. Also, in the US today 17% of blacks over age 25--28% of whites--have at least a Bachelors degree.

This leads me to believe that we should be looking at supply and demand in terms of type, quality, and quantity of human capital. One argument for universal college is that an increased supply of human capital will create its own demand. However, will supply really match that demand? In other words, how many more speech, education, and communications majors do we need versus how many will we get under government financed undergraduate education?

Right now, the most demanded u-grad majors are somewhat out of synch with the most supplied majors. Will universalization help this? I really, really doubt it. Let's take a look:

Top 10 Demand (2004): accounting, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, business administration, economics/finance, computer science, computer engineering, marketing or marketing management, chemical engineering, and information sciences and systems

Top 10 Supply (2001): Business, social science, education, psychology, health, performing arts, biology, engineering, communications, English...

IMHO, if the federal government imposed a college standard, i.e. required for, or paid for every adult to graduate from college, I think we'd get exactly what we paid for--a "tertiary level" of education. We would not get the technical degrees that are in most demand, and that I think are most useful for critical thinking and 21st century production.

Query: If imposed, how long before current 12th grade standards are expected of 16th graders?

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Actually, the whole idea demonstrates to me that socialism really has won the battle of ideas. I understand why we expect the government to do this; it certainly will be "easier" to impose our will on the rich people. But another way of looking at is, given the budget shortfalls of almost all governments, shouldn't we be talking about a massive means-tested private charity?

I say, go to the top 10,000 wealthiest Americans and/or the top 10,000 highest income earners and tell them your objective is to give everyone a college education. (Line up the biggest names and bank accounts--Gates Sr. and Jr., Buffett--first).

If you find that a majority won't donate voluntarily to the post-secondary fund, would you still tax them to do what you want? However, if they will donate voluntarily, you've already gotten most of the money you would have through taxation. And you could do a hell of a lot of good....

5 Comments

From what I understand, engineering was a bit dumbed down in the old Evil Empire. It had to be in order to graduate so many engineers. They had engineers like we have lawyers. I believe that even Gorby was an engineer.

It is kind of a similar situation to China today. They graduate an obscene number of engineers, on the order of 100,000 every single year (of course, that number was from a very alarmed US engineering trade publication, so take it with a grain of salt).

The funny thing is, the US universities are forcing the engineering programs to include more non-engineering classes, more "soft" stuff. The idea is that engineers need to be more "well rounded".

While in school, I found the "soft" classes to be order of magnitues easier than the engineering classes. I'd trade off some physics classes for psych or econ any day of the week, just to boost my GPA a little bit.

Buzz -- Well, just to stick up for it, I'd say you might not have been in the right econ courses. Try sitting through Human Capital with Gary Becker, and you'll see what I mean. Brilliant beyond question, Becker talks almost entirely in "second and third order conditions", and never once -- IIRC -- wrote down a full "english" word during the entire class. Of course, this is not nuclear engineering...I'm just saying that some classes are a bit tougher than "then supply gets bigger, so this line moves over here". Just saying, is all...

But I take your point. When you flood a system (like engineering classes) with people, you start having to sacrifice something in terms of quality, since it is unlikely that all of those people are actually up to the task of performing at a certain level. This is my point made more tactile and succinct.

College itself would suffer the same fate, since all of the disciplines would have to accept expanding ranks. Should one department try to retain its high standards, the run off of people who fail would just trickle to those departments that don't. If engineering, for instance, kept up a req for minimum grades in math classes, those people who don't pass move to the discipline that does allow them in -- English, say. (This coming from a former English and Poli Sci major.) Should all departments refrain from accepting the masses, people would just end up leaving, and you're back to the point where not everyone goes to college. This, of course, would be at odds with the school administration pushing to keep students since that would now be the way to get more funding from the government.

I.

The undergrad econ courses at Columbia--even the extra mathematical Micro course I took--were really cream puffs for the engineering students... and the really soft stuff, like literature, art, and music could be safely done at the last minute...

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II.

My wife told me an anecdote last month. When she was in elementary school, the Soviet teacher asked her students what their parents did. Because both my wife' parents both worked for or in the Soviet military, they both became "engineers" by default.

That could explain the high statistics!

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III.

My mother-in-law actually did graduate from a high-ranking Soviet engineering school (with a degree comparable to an MA); unsurprisingly, she took courses very similar to what is offered at the Fu Engingeering School at Columbia...

However, upon graduation, none of the jobs available to her used any of those skills...

Even admitting the second-tier and third-tier schools had inferior education, they still had--except for the elite party members, the connected, and those able to bribe--a pure meritocracy in entrance to schools.

The Soviets made a reverse error than the apparent market failure I outlined above; they oversupplied even marginally qualified engineers...

My point is that if we are to socialize and universalize education through 16th grade, then using the logic of benevolent and efficiency-minded government, we need a far MORE interventionist system to maintain economic efficiency.

If letting people choose their own specialized 16th grade education has caused a mismatch of supply and demand, why should it not be the business of an authoritarian democracy to rectify this market failure like any other?

Why do people refuse to see that this language of analysis is precisely what is used for other public goods?

Let's not pretend that Federal money comes without strings; like any economic actor, when the federal government spends, it has helps shape the employment picture. When it spends a lot, it becomes a dominant pattern.

If the Feds spend money on nanotechnology research, it de-facto decides that a specific type of jobs will be available for engineers. Why not extend that same principle to education--securing enough labor for those positions?

In fact, the Federal gov. already shapes education to meet many of its needs, but by using carrots (scholarships, grants, and fellowships) instead of sticks (prohibitions).

Let's not pretend that the ROI of an English major is the same as that of a Comp-Sci major; or that the training of a special forces soldier has the same economic impact as that of a chaplain.

Personally, I prefer a more market-based university system. The current system of susidies, grants, and the like still allows people to make ROI decisions largely themselves.

In short, I see universalization as a threat to degree choice.

Myself, I'd like to see the feds do more in the way of regulating how much tuition can go up every year, rather than simply subsidize education with Pell grants and the like.

I realize that there is no economic basis for doing so. My motivation is strictly revenge. I'd like the Marxists and all the other fellow travelers employed by universities to have to actually live under the system that they advocate. Price controls will do nothing if not severely impact the salaries of professors.

Price controls would also be wonderful for politicians. They could gut secondary education spending, and redirect it towards debt reduction or some other area, without looking "soft" on education.

It's win-win!

Dear sir madam
we whant to knew the procedure to study in your university
please send to me the condition and the price

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This page contains a single entry by Kevin published on December 22, 2004 3:55 PM.

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