By Robert Oliphant
With mainstream sources like the LA Times (7/24/2011) on their side, Americans can now feel comfortable in recognizing the runaway extravagance of their universities, e.g., the fact that American university tuition and fees have risen “five times as fast as inflation during the last 30 years” (Economist, July 9th). By way of a how-come answer let’s take a quick look at Thorstein Veblen’s principle of “conspicuous waste.”As most business majors will recall, Veblen introduced vanity into economics by reminding Americans that status was a key element in their purchasing decisions. Even today many of us still accept his views regarding the psychological value of owning objects or receiving services that are highly visible and expensively wasteful (e.g., diamond rings, Lamborghinis, high priced college degrees, etc.).
PARENTAL STATUS SEEKERS. . . . Recognizing this irrational feature in American education, LA Times columnist Sandy Banks recently pointed out (7/24/2011) how cheerfully American parents continue to pay grotesquely overpriced tuition and fees. Consider, for example, the yearly tab at the University of California at Los Angeles according to their Student Affairs department: $12,680 for tuition plus $19,064 in fees for students living on campus.
Sadly enough, only 36% of UCLA’s entering freshmen (4,500 in 2006) actually graduate in the traditional four years (NCES statistics). Yet how many parents actually complain about their Cadillac-level educational expenditures — especially with such iffy results?
By way of another anomaly, given the above figures, how did UCLA manage to award 7,500 bachelor’s degrees in 2010 (NCES figures)? The answer is that at least half of these degrees went to working-class transfers from low-tuition two-year community colleges. But this anomaly in turn raises a second question: How on earth do CC students whom UCLA would not accept as freshmen manage to outperform UCLA “natives” on the junior and senior level?
COMMUNITY COLLEGE WORKER BEES. . . .The answer can be summed up in one phrase: worker bee. Simply put, California community colleges, though dirt cheap, have a longer semester with more class meetings and mandatory attendance, along with hard working full time teachers who teach 5 courses per semester and trim the size of their classes by handing out plenty of Ds and Fs. Hence CC transfers, though admittedly less talented, are usually worker bees who compete very effectively in junior-senior courses — enough so to graduate in droves.
High-priced 4-year tuition and fees for status-conscious parents balanced by open-transfer opportunities for worker-bees at low priced two-year community college students — the combination speaks well for America’s ability to juggle its moral and educational complexities, along with validating the old saw that “persistence trumps brains seven days out of the week.”
Educational fun and games for the rich, competitive educational opportunities for the poor — up until recently this combination was accepted by America’s leaders as the best of all baccalaureate worlds and an open invitation to professional educators to spend and spend, rip off and rip off, with no fear of paternal, student, or taxpayer wrath. Today, though, the international spread of Spoken Worldwide American Dictionary English (SWADE) urges us to “de-Veblenize” American higher education in favor of two new policies that will strengthen our national intellectual competitiveness, not weaken it.
TWO STEPS FORWARD. . . . Our first step should eliminate all federal and state support for freshman/sophomore courses in tax supported four-year universities. Many states already stipulate a 60/40 ratio in favor of juniors and seniors, and the current “general education” requirements for freshmen and sophomores treat them as cash cows supporting discretionary spending by administrators for secret programs with secret objectives.
Our second step should create a series of dictionary-based tests (preschool to grad school) measuring each student’s fluency in Spoken Worldwide American Dictionary English. Right now, especially in multi-lingual nations like China and India, it’s fluency in SWADE that holds their economies together and equips their tele-salespeople to sell Americans their expensive products — this at the same time UCLA students enthusiastically celebrate their own multi-lingualism via an “Accent Festival.”
Regarding American graduate schools: It’s worth noting that our own Graduate Record Exam (GRE) must now has an India competitor in Aspiring Minds, a Bangalore firm, which offers its own multi-disciplinary AMCAT (“America Course Achievement Test”) to aspiring graduate students worldwide, not just India itself, as a prelude to wooing even American students away from our own Stanfords and MITs.
By way of optimism: It can fairly be asserted that Americans themselves are increasing concerned about their educational system. The LA Times of Aug.18, 2011 (the day on which I write these three lines) has a front page story on public education, two guest editorials on higher education, and a long article in AA3 on recent faculty raises at the University of California system.
Granted Veblen’s nose for aristocratic vanity, perhaps it’s time to replay the economist Milton Friedman and his cynical description in “Free to Choose” of UCLA as “a private school operated at public expense” — especially when our children are already competing for high tech jobs against foreigners who speak world class American English, not a local dialect.
Robert Oliphant currently serves as executive director of The Alliance for High Speed Recreational Reading, and formerly served as executive director of Californians for Community College Equity. A resident of Thousand Oaks, CA, and an overseas Air Force veteran, he is an emeritus professor of English at Cal State Northridge.