Thursday, February 21, 2013

Walter Russell Mead on Joseph Stiglitz and Higher Education Reform

I mentioned Joseph Stiglitz's recent NYT commentary at my essay the other day on fatherhood at the Jordan Downs housing project.

Well it turns out Walter Russell Mead has some additional thoughts, "Blues Missing the Mark on Higher Ed Reform":
Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has a wide-ranging piece in the New York Times addressing the problem of income inequality in America, arguing that the U.S. is actually falling behind the rest of the developing world when it comes to social mobility. The piece touches on many issues, but the most interesting parts to us are his comments about how skyrocketing higher-ed costs are depressing upward mobility for the nation’s poor:
Unless current trends in education are reversed, the situation is likely to get even worse. In some cases it seems as if policy has actually been designed to reduce opportunity: government support for many state schools has been steadily gutted over the last few decades—and especially in the last few years. Meanwhile, students are crushed by giant student loan debts that are almost impossible to discharge, even in bankruptcy. This is happening at the same time that a college education is more important than ever for getting a good job.

Young people from families of modest means face a Catch-22: without a college education, they are condemned to a life of poor prospects; with a college education, they may be condemned to a lifetime of living at the brink. And increasingly even a college degree isn’t enough; one needs either a graduate degree or a series of (often unpaid) internships. Those at the top have the connections and social capital to get those opportunities. Those in the middle and bottom don’t. The point is that no one makes it on his or her own. And those at the top get more help from their families than do those lower down on the ladder. Government should help to level the playing field.
As time goes on, we’re seeing a growing consensus of the left, right and center that something is seriously wrong with our higher education system. But while Stiglitz gets the problem right, his solution, that government should be responsible for “leveling the playing field,” leaves much to be desired.
Continue reading.

Recall though that while Mead focuses on other problems at issue besides funding, I'm concerned about improvements in higher education that begin at the level of the family. Our problems are largely cultural. Sure, the state-led bureaucratization of education is enormously wasteful and ineffective, but that doesn't mean that even with moderate reforms it can't be made to lift and improve the lives of more people. Until we work on restoring a culture of learning in society, along with strengthening the centrality of traditional families in the economy, we'll continue to flail away on college success and higher education reform.

BONUS: My good friend Norm has some additional comments on Stiglitz, at the link.