A popular mournful tune of the Great Depression era, appearing in the otherwise forgetful 1932 musical revue Americana, was Brother, Can You Spare A Dime? Many Americans were in genuinely bad financial shape, and a dime could buy something in those days. Many of todays colleges are hurting a good deal financially, so Congress decided to offer them $23 billion as part of its latest $900 billion stimulus package that President Trump signed last night after his demand for even more assistance fell on death ears.
Since fewer than 18 million attend college, that assistance amounts to about $1,300 for every American college studenta good deal more than a dime, even allowing for inflation. Yet the leadership of the American Council of Education (ACE), the chief beggars and rent-seekers amongst the university community, angrily proclaimed, that is not enough! They seem to arrogantly say we are the intellectual leaders and the moral conscience of America, the promoters of innovation and justice for all, so we should not have to suffer during this pandemic like other less enlightened Americans and business entities.
The ACE almost suggests that the concept of academic tenure should provide a form of economic immunity to the broader university community: we should be immune to the downturns inflicting damage on the rest of America. Our noble calling should provide us lifetime protection against the harmful vicissitudes of life.
Actually, if every college and university in America was offered, say, $1200 per student in aid, it would help most of them greatly. At my university, the well over $25 million in assistance would go a long way to alleviating a near desperate financial situation. But we would still no doubt have to make still further painful budget reductions (the exact magnitude is unknown because my university, like many, does not produce easy to understand income statements and balance sheets, financial chicanery that in the private sector would no doubt land CEOs and CFOs in jail.) Financial transparency is not higher educations strong suit.
To be sure, higher education even if funded at the munificent levels proposed by ACE would still be a small portion of a stimulus bill providing all sorts of extraneous pork having nothing to do with relief for Americans, including aid for foreign governments thousands of miles from America. The sins regarding higher education are perhaps small compared with other sins of omission or commission perpetrated by the Gang of 535 that purports to represent the American people in the Washington swampland.
At the heart of the matter: is higher education truly a public good producing such positive spillover effects as to justify massive expenditure of public funds? Or, alternatively and additionally, do colleges and universities serve as agents promoting the aspirational goal of all humans are created equal? In other words, do colleges help achieve the American Dream: opportunities for individuals of all walks of life to use education as a tool in achieving upward income mobility and respectability? If the answer to the above questions is yes, the case for stimulus bailouts to the colleges is arguably defensible.
But have colleges been good stewards of resources showered on them by a generous taxpaying public? Have those resources led to massive increases in human capital formation and technological advance that have spurred economic growth and material welfare? Have they led to greater income equality and intergenerational mobility?
As a member of the collegiate academy for over six decades stretching back to the golden age of the mid-twentieth century, it pains me to answer the questions above largely in the negative. A better case can be made that higher education is a massive con operation perpetrated by rent-seeking individuals seeking not truth, beauty, prosperity, equity or national greatness so much as personal affluence and security. A variety of polls from Gallup and Pew suggest that this insider perspective is increasingly shared by the general public. We need great universities: they perform the important job of transmitting the best of what we have done to the next generation and provide the tools to expand the positive dimensions of the human adventure. We are, however, not succeeding in this task as we should be.