Higher Education Is Neither

In his reaction piece at Bloomberg to the unfolding scandal I mentioned earlier this morning, Tyler Cowen has some interesting observations. First, college is too easy:

First, these bribes only mattered because college itself has become too easy, with a few exceptions. If the bribes allowed for the admission of unqualified students, then those students would find it difficult to finish their degrees. Yet most top schools tolerate rampant grade inflation and gently shepherd their students toward graduation. That’s because they realize that today’s students (and their parents) are future donors (and potential complainers on social media). It is easier for professors and administrators not to rock the boat. What does that say about standards at these august institutions of higher learning?

Alternatively, you might think it is rather arbitrary who is admitted to any given university, and that many of those denied admission could get through the program competently, even if classes and grading were made harder. I agree with you. But what does that say about our understanding of these institutions as meritocracies? Parents pay illegal bribes, in part, because many of these institutions just don’t give enough students a fair chance to get in. It is even worse for the many poorer students whose parents are not in a position to offer either bribes or significant donations.

but this point is even more telling:

My second worry is that the number of bribery cases suggests that many wealthy Americans perceive higher education to be an ethics-free, law-free zone where the only restraint on your behavior is whatever you can get away with.

It ain’t just higher education. It’s business, religious institutions, and politics, too. That is something that should concern us greatly.

In my view that is a consequence of our post-Christian culture. We are making a transition from being a guilt culture in which individuals are motivated to act (or not to act) by internal restraints, i.e. conscience otherwise to be thought of as God knows what you are doing and will punish evil acts, to a shame culture in which the only barrier to bad conduct is the fear of being caught and exposed.

I don’t think that our freeish, relatively lightly-enforced system of laws is compatible with a shame culture. If you think the direction in which we’re heading is benign, imagine China or Ceausescu’s Romania or East Germany in which there were informers on every block. I think that conscience is better.

9 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    “In my view that is a consequence of our post-Christian culture.”

    Yet in that Christian culture sexually abusing kids, wife beating, slave owning, etc was acceptable. Look at the degree of corruption which far exceeds what we have now that was so rampant in the 1800s and the earlier 1900s. Tammany Hall anyone? In our “Christian culture” it has pretty much always been permissible for the wealthy to misbehave. You just had to be wealthy enough to pay off everyone and keep it quiet.

    That said, inasmuch as there is some drop off in public morals, and maybe the wealthy, and even worse the almost wealthy, think they can and should do whatever they can get away with, I think it is ore related to the loss of community. Church going away, more than religion per se, is part of that, but just a part. I think now that downward mobility is mostly gone, you have people who come from a long line of being pretty well off, who then grow up in gated communities, or isolated in some other manner (private schools, private tutors, exclusive clubs, etc.) who feel no allegiance or responsibility to the community at large. This is a much worse problem. A good revival could help if it was just religion.


  • sam Link

    “It ain’t just higher education. It’s business, religious institutions, and politics, too. . . my view that is a consequence of our post-Christian culture.”

    Seriously? Things like this didn’t take place in the “Christian” past? I don’t suppose we’ve ever been more “Christian” than in the 19th century, but see, The Civil War’s War on Fraud. And there’s the volumes written on the corruption of the church in Renaissance Italy. And then there’s Luther. And then…

    Christianity is no proof against the corrupting influence of wealth and the desire of.

  • Gray Shambler Link

    I agree. Actually, what we are now seeing revealed about the behavior of our betters is because of better policing tools and methods. People weren’t better, they just flew below the radar.

  • PD Shaw Link

    As America increasingly uses college as the gatekeeper to a decent standard of living, parents and students from all economic backgrounds are disordered by anxiety. It’s not just a feature of wealth, but the expense of college and the burden of student debt, increase the value of academic and athletic scholarships.

    My daughter’s reaction to this was that everybody in high school cheats, why should people be so surprised about this? She doesn’t cheat, because she thinks that its short-sighted and assumes that they will fail in college. But if Cowen is right, consequentialism ceases to exist in college, I’ve read a lot of people who believe what grades you get in college don’t matter. I guess I thought they mattered — I wanted to find out what I was good at, and when I couldn’t figure that out, I needed good grades to get into the next school.

    I know a mom that was caught texting answers to her daughter during tests Freshman year. Everytime I see her, I think about it. I think about how embarrassing that must be. The daughter is going to be in a good school and a good program next year. The cheating probably wasn’t necessary at all because she’s smart. But when the going gets tough, did she get the chance to learn from her mistakes? Will she have the resilience to soldier through? Yeah, I’m back to consequentialist notions myself.

  • I could draw this easier than I can type it. More education DOES add additional costs, opportunity costs, and, possibly the cost of financing the purchase but doesn’t actually increase utility. A bedpan emptier with a college education is worth no more to a hospital than one without a college education and won’t be paid any more. That’s also true for docs. A neurosurgeon with $500,000 in education debt cannot be billed out for more than one with $100,000 in education debt and the hospital administrator who pays more to the former than the latter is a fool.

    There is a point at which education does not make financial sense. I think for many that point is reached pretty early. Our problem as a society is that higher education may be the “gatekeeper to a decent standard of living” but does not guarantee a decent standard of living.

    There are multiple ways of addressing that. One way is to end the chapter in our history in which higher education is that gatekeeper. Another way is by creating jobs for all college grads that will guarantee that “decent standard of living”. I think the former will be a lot easier to accomplish than the latter.

  • Jimbino Link

    “Post-christian” is a concept I could get quite used to.

  • Gray Shambler Link

    Bankruptcy is an ancient, even Biblical remedy to financial stagnation. The non-bankrupt-able student loan program. Is it constitutional? Isn’t it peonage? Is it legal? Is it a bad idea?

  • It has been pointed out by many that under the present system of student loans neither financial nor educational institutions have any skin in the game which creates perverse incentives.

  • Gray Shambler Link

    Then it’s wrong.

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