Last week, I discussed the butchering by Stanley Fish of an economic explanation for why college costs are high–and, as importantly, where all of that money goes. Robert Archibald and David Feldman offer a good response to their critics in The NY Times, but this is the key point (italics mine):
We would like to thank Stanley Fish for allowing us to respond to reader comments regarding his column about our new book. Reading them felt like working through the worst set of course evaluations a professor ever received.
The power of the dysfunction narrative was on full display in the responses. Stories of waste and inefficiency in higher education have a strong appeal, and they are deeply embedded in our public understanding of rising college cost.
Many who wrote took issue with us based on their personal experience. Although this is perfectly natural, generalizing from experience is not always sound. We need to stand back and take a broad look at the economic landscape of higher education.
At the core of the dysfunction narrative you will find a college-centric view of the world. If something unpleasant is happening, like rising cost, then the reasons must lie within the institutions themselves. We take a different approach, and the diagram below helps explain why we argue for a broader aerial view of the higher education industry.
As they illustrate, the real price of higher education has risen at the same rate as the real price in dental services. In other words, specialized service industries costs increase faster than inflation for a variety of reasons.
I would note that at the non-profit research center kinda associated with two universities at which I work, outside industry salaries do factor into our personnel and salary practices. Like Archibald and Feldman describe, universities are often in competition with the private specialized service sectors, and their costs will keep pace with inflation in those sectors.
Or we can engage in morality narratives that make us feel virtuous, and ignore the larger structural issues, such as runaway inflation in many specialized service sectors and income inequality which directly and indirectly leads to higher college costs*.
*Directly, as I noted before, a huge fraction of college attendees (who are far wealthier than the rest of the country) can actually pay these costs; the more they can afford to do so, the more the costs will increase. Indirectly, as some ‘knowledge workers’ see their salaries explode (e.g., finance), others who have equal or more comprehensive training and who lack commensurate income want higher salaries (people compare up, not down the income ladder).