Maybe I Have Misunderstood Capitalism All These Years

There’s this new initiative being floated in some states that different college majors should cost different amounts, so the “useful” degrees–like the sciences–would be cheaper than the “useless” degrees–like the liberal arts–to encourage more people go to into the sciences, where we need them.

Forget that this seems to assume that the country is losing perfectly good scientists to the love of poetry, which has to just not be the case. And set aside the bizarre idea that what one majors in in college is always completely correlated to what one does in life. Or the idea that you can predict at 18 what will be useful when someone is, say, 25. Forget all the practical concerns.

Just explain to me how this is not the opposite of capitalism? If you were really going to run a school this way, but using actual capitalistic principles, wouldn’t, say, a BFA in poetry be the least expensive major? Or, okay, if not by which major will bring you the least amount of money if you go into a job with a direct correlation, then by which majors have the fewest people in them? So, it would seem that being an astro-physics major should be hella cheap.

Okay, I have to make a confession here. I got up in the middle of this rant to eat breakfast and let the dog out and feed the cats and I cannot, for the life of me, remember what my big culminating point was going to be.

But shouldn’t “worthless” degrees or degrees no one’s interested in be the cheap ones? Isn’t that how capitalism is supposed to go? We have a big supply of seats in these areas and little demand for them? They’re the cheapest?

Oh, lord, imagine if this really worked! A class, say, has room for 30 students. The first ten people to sign up pay the least. The next ten pay more. The last ten pay most. And the people on the waiting list… whoa. So, this brings up an interesting problem. Say I bought my seat in “Contemporary Poetry” back when it was $10 and then word gets out that every Friday in class there’s a burlesque show with poetry and now everyone who’s looking to fill an English requirement wants to take the class. The university is happy because it has its ten $10 students and its ten $20 students and its ten $30 students. And I’ve paid for my seat.

So, is it cool if I sell my seat to someone on the waiting list for $50?

Or would the university put in some kind of dynamic pricing so that, like the stock market, the cost of the class would reflect demand for it right at that moment?

Anyway, I’m not a huge fan of unmitigated capitalism or anything, but the idea of instituting some kind of anti-capitalism into higher ed–by Republicans, who are supposed to be the most gung ho for capitalism–by making the classes the State prefers the least expensive ones is hilarious to me.

The trouble with any ideologue is that you quickly become indistinguishable from your ideological foes. I keep hoping this isn’t true, of course, because I would like to be an untempered ideologue. But at some point, you go round the bend and meet up with the people you are opposed to.

And so here we are, the political party that is still afraid of Communists wants the State’s preferences for what you take in college to have as much, if not more, influence over what you take than what you want.

11 thoughts on “Maybe I Have Misunderstood Capitalism All These Years

  1. if any of these people proposing this idea had looked at the cost of art school, they would know that a fine art degree is much more expensive than a business or science degree, for example. Not only did I have to buy books back in the day, but I had to buy oil & watercolor paints, printmaking supplies, clay shaping tools and countless other items. And all of these things have to be replaced throughout the semester – because unlike a book – they run out.

  2. Maybe those proposing this should compare what people say they are planning to major in when they enter college and what they graduate having majored in. Few students will, or can, do the work to complete science degrees. And we’re better for that – finding and rewarding the smart and talented. Costs are not the issue since only a portion of students even help to pay their own way or know how to conceive of loan debt. Or, student costs would go up dramatically in their second or third year when they fail out of the cheaper major.

    I’m still wondering why so many people keep trying to think of BAs as professional degrees. They aren’t. They shouldn’t be.

  3. Karen, that was my thought exactly.

    Professor, it is weird. Except that I think there is a strain of American thought that presumes a person should have only the bare minimum education one needs in order to be a good employee and that everything on top of that is extraneous that “we” shouldn’t have to pay for.

    It’s anti-intellectualism but very narrowly defined. It’s okay for you to take these classes, but not those.

  4. Actually, the University of Washington is thinking about it in the opposite way; if the pay for someone with one degree, say engineering, is higher than the pay for another, like art history, then the engineer’s tuition should be more than if they were majoring in art history. This is causing a big stink right now because of Washington’s prepaid tuition program which, if the UW goes through with their plan, would end up costing the state money because the state is assuming more people will want to go into the higher tuition degrees than the lower tuition ones.

  5. I promised myself yesterday I wasn’t going to go here. But I can’t help myself. I’ve been fuming over this for awhile now. It’s just stupid. Different states are proposing different versions of the thing. Some want to make science degrees (I can’t remember the abbreviation for these programs but it’s all fancy and bureaucratic. TAMS or something like that. Technology, math, sciences) cheaper to entice students into those tracks and others want to make them more expensive since the salary return is theoretically greater.

    All of this is coming about because nobody wants to talk about the real problem–the collapse of the student loan bubble and the fact that lenders and guarantors are losing money hand over fist. The problem has never been too many poets. The problem has been that nobody wants to look to closely at for-profit universities that are charging beyond top dollar for associates programs in medical transcription that will never EVER earn back the money a student borrowed, since the for-profits encourage padded borrowing. (“Use your Student Loan to buy a car! The car helps you go to classes!”)

    There was a gentlemen’s agreement to look the other way at this chicanery because when the housing bubble collapsed these sub-prime student loans were a lot of what kept the economy going. Few people on either side of the aisle were willing to point out that this was just as risky as subprime mortgages. A bad loan is a bad loan.

    So now there’s all this nonsense that looks at penalising legitimate liberal arts programs as an recovery method. Utter foolishness, that we bankrupted the intellect of our nation like this.

  6. I was thinking about something along these lines today when someone wrote Andrew Sullivan talking about her $100,000 in student loan debt and I kept waiting for her to be a doctor or a lawyer, but no! That’s her undergraduate student loan debt.

    I remember thinking the cost of higher ed was outrageous when I was there, but at least in our day it was still possible that you could work all summer and have a part time job during the school year and pay for a state school. I don’t think there’s any way to do that now. I suspect it’s impossible to work your way through school these days.

    The shocking thing about Sullivan’s letter writer is that she seems to kind of think it was worth it, even though her student loan payment is half her income, because she went to a “good school.” And it got her what? Just a job? Is that what we’re telling people? You must first go into great debt just to get a job?

    It’s like modern indentured servitude or something. And it’s not just the for-profit schools which are to blame, though they certainly have their grave ills.

    I’d be curious to know if a school could be run on the principal that it should cost students no more than a part time job could pay. I wonder if they could get faculty and administrators to buy into that, even if it meant they’d be less well-compensated. I guess probably not.

  7. I like the seat-bidding idea — can the prof get a cut for only teaching at 11AM?

    Not only do we not know which jobs will be most needed in twenty years, and not have much better idea than an 18 year old what s/he would be good at (and no right to not let ze make zi mistakes), but not all STEM jobs will, or should, be paid lots, and some poetry majors become crazy rich actors or Web 4.0 barnglefeelers. I’d be much happier with just outright saying Your education is free for five years while you’re making decent grades, and you will be paying us x% of your income for 30 years for each year you were in school with us. Because the school loans already look like 30 year loans, but the interest doesn’t even go to the school, does it?

    This is not totally unlike tax-funded education, which is fine by me. Also, boy howdy, if the wealth of an institution 20 years out depended directly on its students’ careers, faculty and administrators would have some different incentives. (Not all good.)

  8. I wouldn’t want to have to figure out exactly how to administer that–would someone pay monthly? Well, I guess you could. Do like some churches do where you submit a pay stub and your check for the correct percentage of that income.

    And you know, it would make some big changes, but the one I think would be most immediate and beneficial is that I bet “career centers” would stop sucking. And I bet they’d be open to alumni.

    Anyway, I’d like to see a school try that. It’s kind of a shame that there was all this experimentation in the 60s with how to educate people and how to pay for it, but in the past 50 years, we haven’t really seen any great innovation other than for-profit colleges. And I think what you’re suggesting would have some major drawbacks, but the benefits would be pretty immediate and substantial, too.

    For one, any school that said upfront, “From here on out, we get half of what you make” would find themselves without a lot of students, whereas right now, there are a lot of people who are paying huge percentages of their income, but suffering invisibly.

  9. My experience (and rumbling in the civil engineering trades) has been more like what Brownie mentioned. When I was in grad school way back in the double aught at a ‘prestigious’ school in Knoxville they had instituted an extra fee for engineering classes with the BS claim that it covered the cost of labs. Even though those were billed to students as extra credit hours.

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