Anthony Grafton and James Grossman: The Wrong Way to Lower College Costs

Anthony Grafton is Henry Putnam University Professor of History and the Humanities at Princeton University. James Grossman is the executive director of the American Historical Association.

Want to know how to solve the problem of ever-increasing college costs? A lot of people have answers. One of the Very Serious People who can give you one is the economist Richard Vedder, professor at Ohio University, Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. In a recently issued report Vedder and two researchers use data provided by the University of Texas system, which includes nine universities, to argue that the state “could move towards making college more affordable by moderately increasing faculty emphasis on teaching”—and, more remarkably still, do so “without importantly reducing outside research funding or productivity.”

Vedder’s report is being publicized by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a “non-profit, non-partisan research institute” that seeks “to promote and defend liberty, personal responsibility, and free enterprise in Texas and the nation,” where the ubiquitous Vedder is a Senior Research Fellow. The Foundation has become known for the acerbic (and sometimes ill-informed) critiques of higher education in Texas put forth by one of its directors, Jeff Sandefer. But Vedder’s report is of more than local interest—as is clear from the discussions it has provoked across the blogosphere and beyond.

From coast to coast, great public universities are under attack as expensive luxuries that the nation can no longer afford to support. Governors and state legislators are withdrawing state funds from universities that they continue to regulate. Critics outside and inside the academy denounce professors for doing too much research, teaching too few students, receiving too much pay and offering unwelcome expertise on ideas ranging from climate change to the causes of the Civil War. Meanwhile tuition and other costs continue to rise, and promising students from poor families are reluctant to commit themselves to expensive institutions. In this climate of crisis, ideologues with simple, radical ideas about how to lower costs will attract an audience eager for a solution, especially one that does not include the words “taxes” or “public responsibility.”...

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