Sunday, June 15, 2008

On Universities -- Markets and Egalitarianism

The crisis in the universities has come about because of two influences: egalitarianism and markets. As universities have embraced an egalitarian ethos, they have lowered standards to let in more and more students. In turn, this has resulted in a market for those students, which has further driven down standards across the board. This also happens in no small part because most universities receive government funding, and so do not want to be seen as "discriminating" in any way, shape, or form. Of course, this, too, is part of the egalitarian ethos. This helps explain why universities, when exposed to market forces, have gotten worse and worse. We don't see this in things like grocery stores, for example. The grocery stores are not controlled by people with a singular ideology. Some grocery stores want to serve the poor, others want to serve middle-incomes, and other grocery stores want to serve the wealthy. The result is that the poor get cheaper food, though they may have to spend more time looking through the produce to find good tomatoes -- while the wealthy have to pay more for the privilege of not having to look through the produce at all. The rich can have boutique grocery stores, while the poor have more affordable food. If the universities weren't run by egalitarians, we could have the same thing in higher education, based on abilities. The smartest could go to boutique universities, where they would be faced with the most challenging education possible, while those with average intelligence could go to Wal-Mart University. One could argue that we have this with community colleges, state universities, and the Ivy League schools (and their equivalents), but the fact is that the last two are increasingly dumbing down. I have taught at a state university that was not giving any better an education than was the community college I taught at. I have also taught at a state university that was offering a better education overall, though local companies still complained that the graduates couldn't write.

One thing that was emphasized over and over at Acton U. was that the market will give the people what they want. This was seen as both a blessing and as a potential problem (markets are most efficient at distributing both food and pornography). But what if the ones providing the service have a unifying ideology that ultimately results in a cartel, as we see in the universities? That's when we get market failure. We need more education entrepreneurs who can open universities that are bereft of egalitarians so that high-quality education can be provided for the best and brightest. The cartels need to be broken up -- they are standing in the way of true market forces, which can release the latent talent, creativity and energies of this country.

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