Let's subsidize community college and crack down on scams, but American college finance has big successes
American universities were able to hire the best and brightest long before very high tuition engendered by subsidized student loans became available.
In fact, they not only did that, but also hired a great number of “merely“ talented teaching professors and lectures as well.
In the era in which they’ve transitioned to student loan-driven tuition increases as a model for funding, they have instead squandered vast sums of money on useless shit, at the same time is cutting stable professor and lecture positions in favor of adjuncts paid peanuts.
The entire current student loan system needs to be done away with, and the massive administrative and lifestyle bloat that it allowed needs to be extirpated root and branch.
The only “someone” who wants this shit is the bureaucracy staffing it.
We have too many kids going to college and too few going to trade schools or directly into the workforce. The result is an over-educated, under-skilled populace, and many of those people are now earning too little to pay back their loans for their education.
Until we stop sending the message to the vast majority of high school students that they should go to college, this problem won't be solved regardless of any loan forgiveness program.
My experience as a professor at a state flagship University: I was teaching in Norway, where life quality is supposed to be fantastic. But the University in America offered me much more money and a better research network. Sure, there are more medical and educational expenses here, but taxes in Norway are insanely high. So I get paid much more and get more academic exposure.
You are somewhat dismissive of the criticism of "administrative blast". After an over thirty years career in higher education, I can assure you that Administrative bloat is a very real phenomena. If you compared salary lists from 1990 and 2020, the proportion of high salaries paid for administrative positions has soared.
This is madness. None of the great American universities are that because of the boom in debt financing. Your whole whole take seems to be, "Well, people seem to be enjoying being given all that money." Of course they are, why wouldn't mediocre bureaucrats appreciate having a good paying career selling a government financed cruise to 17 year olds? What 17 year old isn't in to a 4 year cruise that everyone tells you will pay for itself?
You can't even begin to grapple honestly with this problem without looking at things like grade inflation, credentialism, return on investment, expected productivity gains, etc. The whole point of debt financed higher ed is to provide capable students an opportunity to attend a program that most effectively maximizes their productive capacity. Is that what we're doing!? I mean obviously not, but you didn't even try to grapple with what we are or are not doing in these areas.
Your premise isn't fact-based because you just assumed (without validating) the conventional wisdom that American higher education is better because the top American universities are disproportionally overrepresented in the top global universities.
But most students don't go to Harvard. Most *elite* students globally don't even go to these few top well-known brand schools! There are *4,000* institutions of higher education in the United States, and plausibly 50-100 (the cutoff is somewhat arbitrary) could be considered "elite." How many of that longer list are the top in the world (at least according to QS World University Rankings: https://www.topuniversities.com/qs-world-university-rankings)?
Well, firstly, it may shock readers to hear that merely half of the Top 10 universities in the world are American. The rest are English or Swiss. English universities charge higher tuition than most European ones do, but they're a fraction of the cost of even many American community colleges. And neither English nor Swiss universities have anywhere near the endowments that American elites do.
Go down the list from the Top 10, and you're in for even more of a shock, and contradiction to your argument here: The actual majority of the Top 20 schools aren't American. The rest are found in China, Singapore, and Scotland, joining the relatively more expensive English and Swiss elites at the top. Go down the list to the Top 30, and the American advantage erodes futher, with 17 out of 30 non-American schools, including now many Canadian elites. The same trend continues and accelerates when you look at Top 50, Top 100, and Top 1000 global universities. The American elites are, indeed, disproportionately represented relative to population, but they are far from the majority. And they are contested on their throne by non-American schools with little or no tuition costs, heavy public subsidy, and minuscule endowments.
As an example: I went to a very fancy, *extremely* expensive, private university in Washington, DC: Georgetown University. It's usually ranked somewhere in the American Top 20. So, it's elite, but not quite Ivy-League elite. Where I live in Sweden (population 10 million), there are not one but three universities ranked higher internationally than GU. Guess how much they cost students--even Americans studying there who aren't EU citizens or permanent resident here in Sweden? The answer makes me weep as I continue to pay my student loans every month in my 30s.
My son, who is Swedish-American, will have quite a choice to make in 15 years or so when he's applying to university. Whether our family can afford it or not, I'm just not convinced that encouraging him to go to an American university like me is worth it. Especially if he, like me, would have to take on debt to do so. Why not just attend Lund, ETH, or Chalmers here for free? Or, hell, even Oxford or Cambridge for a quarter of what it would cost him to attend even a mid- or low-tier American school. And for what? The "campus experience?" Yes, the alumni-professional network aspect that you're buying into is valuable. As is the status of your diploma in the place where you will work. But I know a hell of a lot of Europeans with European degrees who make the big bucks in New York or San Fransisco as much as in London or Frankfurt with their elite degrees.
And, again, most students aren't elite, and we betray a bias and a blind spot in focusing overmuch on the top 1% of elite students who mostly come from wealthy families anyway and won't have a hard time being successful, no matter their alma mater. Would you advise a middling student to take out $200K in debt to attend a mid-tier American school? It would be the height of negligence to do so, considering their future earning upside is far more modest than for their elite peer. Wouldn't they be so much better off just attending a European school for free or for a few thousand dollars?
I wish people would simply talk more about income-based repayment. For some reason I never see it mentioned in The Discourse. How government student loans work is you pay 10% of your discretionary income a year until they are paid off. If they don’t get paid off after 20 years the balance is forgiven. Discretionary income is defined as income above the federal poverty line, so for example someone making $60k a year will pay around $320/month in loan payments.
This is annoying but I don’t really understand why it’s considered such a big burden. It’s not really that big a deal in exchange for the college wage premium. Why don’t Student Debt Cancellers just try to lobby to make the forgiveness period 10 years? Or reduce the monthly payments?
This piece really misses the mark. MY premise that higher Ed in America is great is based on a few pieces of evidence. First the sort of anecdotes that star professors want to come here. But that’s not very different from noting that people with means and horrible diseases would like to come to US from all over the world to have their complex operation. That by no means proves us has a good healthcare system!
Second, the rankings. MY mentions the recent uk visa program. Readers are probably curious why the uk chose the seemingly random number 38 top universities? In fact the number is 50 but out of them a full 12 are uk universities! Why is it that the vastly smaller and poorer uk, which also charged relatively lower tuition at its prestige universities compared to US, manages to be so successful *with vastly smaller resources*?
The truth is that both US and UK have one major advantage over most of Europe and Asia: English. A factor in rankings is number of foreign students and the English speaking environment (not just at schools but in the country at large) is a pull factor that peer countries (e.g Germany, Japan) cannot compete with.
At the end of the day one must account for how HUGE the US actually is in population, in the size of its high Ed sector, and in the disproportionate resources pulled in to it. Compared to these, the sector is actually severely *underperforming* and the number of top ranking institutions is actually smaller than you would expect. The system is extremely wasteful and inefficient and -importantly becoming increasingly so while producing increasingly worse results and higher price tags.
This is but one point. I haven’t even discussed:
1. Disappearance of middle class from top institutions due to funding models
2.Adjunctification and loss of academic freedom due to administrative takeover
3. falling standards, including at the very top institutions (I teach at one and talk to colleagues)
4. Rising intolerance and “McCarthistic” atmosphere in past couple of years
EDIT: I made a mistake on the way UK visa system works (as I now understand it, 38 is the number of universities appearing on at least two out of I believe three approved rankings of the top-50 non UK and non Ireland ranked universities). The actual number of UK universities in top 50 is on range of 7 or 8, depending on ranking and year, with greater proportion towards the top (e.g. 2/10 and 3/15 in THE). However this doesn't really change my general point on the relative success of the UK HE sector compared to US despite vastly smaller resources (and the advantage both probably gain in ranking relative to much of Europe and Asia due to English).
Very frustrated with this take! Fine to defend higher education but you owe us a bit more steel-manning. Not going to use the "neoliberal" word, but it's important to engage with how labor and debt markets are actually working here. Two points in particular:
1] The primary critique of US higher ed as I understand it is that the loan/subsidy system has removed all the price control mechanisms that would be present in a normal market (similar to healthcare, if you like), which drives skyrocketing tuition from the demand side. Massive student debt is the externality of this system, saddled onto federal lenders and graduated students but largely not a problem for the institutions who set tuition. I don't think you can really address the debt/subsidy question without addressing this.
2] The profitable nature of US higher ed institutions is a direct result of that loan/subsidy system, so you can't wave away the problem by pointing to all the nice stuff we have. If I ran a theater where stage-hands mugged every tenth ticket-holder, I could use those profits to put on a heck of a show! But if we believe education is a social service, we have to engage with how students are actually being served by these institutions.
Some part of the bad comparisons to Europe may be that folks underplay how much even large research universities in the US are influenced by "the liberal arts tradition". In my understanding from relatives, university in Europe is generally more like just being an adult and getting some professional training and less like four years in which you get to spend your time Thinking about Big Ideas and Exploring Yourself.
It takes a lot of work and effort on the part of working adults at the campus to maintain a safe enough, fun enough environment for a bunch of 18-22 year olds to self-express in! I actually went to a liberal arts college and endorse this heavily, it was a great experience, but it can be a little bit of a cold shower when you realize that the rest of life is not just thinking about interesting things.
Since you brought up the University of Minnesota, I always thought one of the brilliant things they used to do was have a very minor gap between in state and out of state tuition. One of the State's biggest problems is getting people to even consider coming here because of the weather, but a lot of people stay here once they get here. Luring young people to the State with a high quality education at a relatively low price was a great way to help the State maintain its very highly educated workforce.
Unfortunately, it became politically unpopular and now there is a large disparity between instate and out of state tuition and I'm going to be fascinated to see how that impacts the State's workforce long-term.
I’ve long been a fan of reinstating the gainful employment test and this time including non-profit universities in addition to for-profit ones. It’s obscene that we continue to enable these predatory programs by sadling their students with unserviceable levels of debt through federally-subsidized student loans.
I understand our coalition concerns about aggrieving higher education professionals, but I don’t think we can continue to ignore this problem. We need to work with them to reform their programs so that they are economically sound. We’d need to do this even if we replaced student loans with direct subsidies so as to not squander taxpayer funds.
I’ve seen several analyses over the years about the extent to which the gainful employment test would exclude financially-exploitative non-profit programs. A quick search for up-to-date stats turned up this 2020 article, “Many Nonprofit College Programs Would Fail Gainful Test”. 
> Only about 60 percent of programs at private nonprofit institutions, and 70 percent of those at public colleges and universities, would pass the Obama administration’s gainful-employment test, if it were in place and applied to them, according to an online tool developed by a conservative Texas policy group.
> Only 5,646 of 10,147, or 55.6 percent, of private, for-profit programs for which income and debt data were available would have passed the standard. Another 2,071, or a fifth, would have failed. And 2,430, or 24 percent, of the programs would have been on probation.
> But private nonprofits didn’t do much better. Only 6,262 of 10,585 programs, or 59 percent, would have passed. Another 1,916, or 18 percent, would have failed. And 2,407, or 22.7 percent, would have been on probation.
> This indicates that a lot of the people asserting that for-profits are uniquely bad actors are wrong -- as a group, their performance is quite similar to that of nonprofits. Publics do noticeably better than either nonprofit private or for-profit colleges, no doubt because they generally cost less to attend and therefore their graduates have less debt.
Mostly agree, only thing I would add is that I’d love to see some federally enforced accountability for individual college programs (both college majors and specific graduate programs). My liberal arts college basically lied to kids entering unmarketable majors and told them that they could get jobs. As an affluent kid of college educated parents I knew better because my parents told me to major in something useful, but not everyone had that advantage. And while a bachelors degree from a decent school is still mostly a useful credential even if the major is useless (I think just forcing more transparency from colleges is reasonable for college majors), predatory grad programs are not useful credentials. The government should be able to shut down a bad Harvard master’s program without shutting down Harvard as a whole.
If you substitute “hospital” for “university”, isn’t this functionally a defense of the US healthcare system just because the best few hospitals in the world are here? Mayo Clinic doesn’t justify the waste of the entire healthcare system and Harvard doesn’t justify the waste of the entire higher education system.
Or if this argument is correct, then isn’t a lower-spending single payer system a bad idea and we should figure out how to reform our healthcare system in a way that allows Mayo to thrive? Hospitals put money into cancer and vaccine research, so they have good externalities too.
I would be interested in taking a harder look at the criteria that are used to evaluate the world's "best" universities. My hunch is that it has nothing to do with the quality of instruction and is instead some combination of 1) factors that tightly correlate with the elitism of the student body and 2) the research that the university produces. By those standards, of course Anglo and American institutions are gonna outperform; Yale's student body will always be better off than the student body of some other country's system of publicly financed schools. And even the research a university isn't a good basis of comparison because it falsely assumes that other countries adopt the (not obviously good) American practice of centering their research on college campuses. (Teaching undergrads the second law of thermodynamics is a fundamentally different task than performing experiments with a particle accelerators.)
In a lot of countries (like Germany where I live), basic research is conducted without a university affiliation, which means that no university basks in the reputational benefits from that research. If you were to snap your fingers and call the Max Planck Institut part of Humboldt University, Humboldt would instantaneously become one of the greatest research universities in the world through nothing but an administrative trick. My friend's husband is a mathematician who does pure research. He teaches no classes, has no university affiliation. Also, he works at an institute that is literally a couple of blocks away from a university. In the US, that institute would clearly be part of the university.
There's no doubt the US does a lot of research and has some great schools, but the positive impacts are greatly skewed by the false assumption that higher education in Europe and elsewhere operates on the same basic UK-US model.
you forget to mention better 420 access for American universities when talking about HIGHER education.