Friday, September 6, 2013

Contra Matt Yglesias

I generally find Matt Yglesias’ take on things pretty perspicacious. Still, I think he went off the rails this week when he asserted “no one likes to brag about shortchanging their kids’ education”:

Imagine a scenario where you travel out of town on work and end up meeting up with an old friend you haven't seen in a while. He's a prosperous professional — a lawyer at a local firm, say — but not a top 1 percent master of the universe type. Basically, a guy with some discretionary income to blow but not someone who can just be indifferent to what everything costs. You're surprised to see him roll up in a surprisingly fancy car and remark "wow, nice car!"
Imagine the following replies:

  1. Yeah, I got an amazing deal on it. Apparently this color was wildly unpopular for some reason but I didn't mind and got it at a great price.
  2. Yeah, we had a blockbuster year at the firm so I decided to splurge with the bonus.
  3. Yeah, after Hannah finished college Marie and I decided to downsize to a smaller house and buy ourselves fancy cars with the extra money.
  4. Yeah, we found out about a discount college that provides 95% of the educational value of traditional college at half the price so we sent Hannah there and bought fancy cars instead.
  5. Yeah, I probably shouldn't have done it and I definitely shouldn't be telling you about it but I got a bit of a hot stock tip from a client and bought this with the proceeds.
 I feel like you can easily imagine someone saying four of these things to an old an friend, and the one I can't imagine isn't the one where you confess to a crime.

Matt makes at least three sneaky rhetorical moves here. The first is using the loaded word “shortchanging,” as opposed to, say, “getting a good value,” the second is setting an especially ostentatious luxury item (the car) against education, and the third is making his interlocutor a member of the upper middle class, a guy within shouting distance of the famous “1 percent.”

Yes, among folks with six-figure incomes a lot of conspicuous consumption and social positioning figures into their education spending, along with whatever learning presumably comes along for the ride. What’s the point of making partner if you can’t send your daughter to the Drakensberg to hone her rappelling skills and take a class in intermediate Xhosa?

But Matt’s assertion that “‘The Kids’ is everyone’s favorite thing to spend money on” holds true only in certain zip codes. The attitude is a class marker, not a universal. Down here in the lower middle class, I find people worry all the time about school’s cost-benefit tradeoffs – and I’m sorry, but I hear a lot about bargain-hunting. When parents secure a good deal, they tell their friends proudly, and it sure sounds like bragging to my ears.

The following would be an unremarkable sentence, perhaps even a status-enhancing one, for a typical central Pennsylvania couple: “We’re sending Kenneth (or Jennifer) to community college for two years, then he/she will finish up at Penn State. After all, he/she will end up with the same degree, for two-thirds the cost.”

I can even imagine such parents buying a new car with the savings, and admitting it. Maybe it wouldn’t be a Lexus, but they might well conclude the family needed a new Corolla more than Kenneth needed to spend all four years in State College.

The problem for average parents is that the peculiarities of the education market, plus the decline of public funding, have priced all the bargains out of existence. Millions of people would love to give their kids a chance at a decent white-collar job without incurring tens of thousands of dollars of debt. But after three decades of above-inflation tuition increases, those opportunities simply aren’t there. We have gaudy campuses, state-of-the-art laboratories, dorms that look like Club Med – but virtually no place where an unremarkable young person can get a respected credential without going into indentured servitude. (See this extraordinary piece by Felix Salmon on Cooper Union for a particularly awful illustration of the devolution of social mission in higher education.)

I believe, contra Matt, that there plenty of parents in America who are quite clear-eyed about the one-upmanship that plagues education today, who don’t want to play and would love to opt out. But to opt out, you need options.

1 comment:

  1. I believe that you're dead on, to take Yglesias to task here. It really is the height of snootiness to take his position on the cost of schooling. My own choice of post secondary school was based to a great extent on cost (way back when I could find a good quality school for a $750/semester tuition and my own home state university, Penn State, was charging twice that or more).

    I tend to disagree that there are no bargains. We simply don't hear about them. Coincidentally, this very day I was a party in a conversation in which one young lady was counselling another to rethink her choice of a prestigious local liberal arts college in favor of a less well known, but perfectly serviceable, university about a half hour's drive away. The university charges just about a third what the more prestigious institution does. (My contribution to the discussion was to ask whether the second young lady intended to obtain a credential in order to start a career, or whether she wished to continue her education, perhaps become an academic. I also counselled her to talk to the people up the road. More information never hurt anyone.)

    Cost/benefit is part and parcel of the decision whether to attend college and where. Mr. (Dr.?) Yglesias has his head in the clouds. His statements would be considered elitist and offensive in many circles, and might earn him an invitation to the door.