Letter to the Editor

In an article in The Vanguard (February 24, 2004) Chester Finn of the Hoover Institute argues that the cure for the high cost of higher education would be a “no-frills” university that would reward “efficiency and productivity.”

Mr. Finn does not distinguish, as one must, between price and cost. Every PSU student knows that the price of tuition has increased enormously in recent years as does every student at almost every institution in the country. The increases, however, do not for the most part reflect an increase in “frills” or a decrease in “productivity” (whatever that means), nor are they primarily the result of an increased cost of running a university.

There are two systems of higher education in this country, private and public. According to Charles Clotfelter in “Buying the Best,” private institutions, especially the elite ones, have raised their tuition rates largely because they could. Starting in the 1980s, the affluent part of the population increased their share of national wealth while the perceived value of higher education increased. Elite institutions increased their value by not increasing their enrollment to meet demand. Two more economists, McPherson and Winton, imply that private institutions increased their tuition fees in order to represent themselves as elite. (If we charge less than Princeton, people will think that we are not as good as Princeton.) The increased income was spent on doing more – more programs, more faculty. Faculty salaries, however, remained fairly constant, as Clotfelter showed.

For a long time, tuition fees in public higher education remained fairly constant. Recently, however, and especially in Oregon, public institutions have had to charge more because support from the state has decreased. What has happened has not so much been an increase in cost as a transfer of cost, from taxpayers to students. That is not to say that there has not been any increase in total costs. University libraries, for example, have had to pay exorbitant increases in the cost of scientific journals in a market where there is no competition. Still, the principal problem for Oregon has been the effect of voter-approved tax cuts compounded with a decline in state revenues.

As the concept of “cost” has to be analyzed critically, so must Mr. Finn’s use of the word “efficiency.” As is to be expected from someone at the Hoover Institute, he assumes that the business model can be applied to higher education. Like many a college trustee, he has a na퀌�ve belief in the power technology to increase the reach and lower the cost of education. While a factory worker who turns out a thousand widgets an hour is ten times more efficient that one who produces only a hundred an hour, it is not necessarily true that a professor lecturing by electronic media to a thousand students is in any significant sense more efficient than a professor in a classroom lecturing to fifty. Professors do not just lecture; they respond to questions, they monitor debates between students, they critique students oral comments and their papers, they hover over students doing laboratory experiments, and they even meet students one at a time in their offices for intensive tutoring. If the work of teaching is to produce intellectual growth, then such labor-intensive activities are at least as valuable as formal lecturing. As universities have been forced by economic forces to become more efficient in Mr. Finn’s crude understanding of the term, for example, by hiring more and more part-time, adjunct faculty and increasing classroom size, there has almost certainly been a decrease in educational effectiveness.

Finally, Mr. Finn is apparently unaware that Universities are not just disseminators of knowledge; they are equally discoverers of knowledge. Unlike right-wing think tanks, such as the Hoover Institute, and unlike for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix, Universities serve society as apolitical sources of new knowledge. Almost the whole world, developed and developing, understands the need to support higher education. In the United States and especially in Oregon, however, with the enormous influence of the political right, we are facing a divestment in higher education that does not bode well for the future of the state and nation.

John R. Cooper

Professor Emeritus of the PSU English Department retired 1999.

Former president of the Interinstitutional Faculty Senate for the Oregon University System.