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Bill Tierney

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Twelve Inconvenient Truths—I

Richard Vedder, a conservative economist and something of a gadfly, has written Twelve Inconvenient Truths About Higher Education. By my count, he’s wrong on six, right on three, and sort of correct on another three. Some of my friends will think I’m being generous. The inconvenient truths (a term heisted from Al Gore, oddly) are something of a mantra for conservatives. Over the next few blogs I’d like to discuss the fallacies of some of his truths.

Let’s get started:

He claims that “Universities are not an engine for growth.”

Curiously, he begins by pointing out that innovation is good, and that some students may learn complex matters in college which enable them to be innovative. He then points out that Massachusetts doesn’t spend much on higher education and it has a high rate of growth. And then he raises what is his real bugaboo: a little higher education is good, but spreading it around too much doesn’t do much. And further, if the market decided rather than the public sector simply giving money to universities, things would be better.

Since he’s dealing in extremes, let’s offer an alternative: let’s assume a state entirely gets out of higher education. Let the market and the consumer decide. Do we really think that a state will be better off? Will a state with a lower educational attainment level be better off when it has to attract external talent to staff its high wage jobs? If I have a college degree and live in the state that provided it to me, why would I move to a state that disdains what a college education provides? Richard Florida’s work on creative economies demonstrates persuasively the sorts of things that need to be in place for a metropolitan area to be creative and thrive—and one of them is a vibrant educational system. And there’s very little evidence, by the way, that creative professionals move to a state because of low taxes (sorry New Hampshire).

I also wonder why Vedder hates the poor. His work is refreshingly honest and frank—except when he speaks about “too much higher education.” Perhaps he hasn’t thought through the implications, or perhaps he’s being disingenuous, but if a public system provides “too much higher education” and we cut back, guess who will be impacted. We won’t see fewer of the Rich Rich kids going to college. We may see fewer middle class kids getting a college degree, and we’ll see significantly fewer poor students. And that means fewer students of color.

I’m hard-pressed to think that if a state decided to leave one flagship institution so that a few students could be creative and innovative, that the state would actually benefit. Do we honestly believe that getting out of higher education will yield a higher rate of growth? I wonder if the Massachusetts example is in any way an outlier? Hmm, I wonder if Harvard, MIT, and the rest would make any difference …

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