Posted by: Doug Henwood | March 8, 2010

Don’t believe the Manhattan Institute

In a few hours, I’ll be posting the piece on how expensive college has gotten and why to the LBO website. In the meanwhile, a dreadful article, “Why the Student Protesters Are Wrong,” published by a Manhattan Institute front called Minding the Campus needs some correction.

The author, Daniel Bennett, is a policy analyst at a right-wing think tank with a creepy name: The Center for College Affordability & Productivity. The director of the think tank is Richard Vedder, who wrote a book on how great Wal-Mart is, which gives you an idea of what they mean by productivity. In his article, Bennett says that student protesters are wrong to blame steep tuition hikes on “hard-pressed” state and local governments:

State and local subsidies to public colleges and universities increased by 44% in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars during the 25-year period between 1982 and 2007. Had colleges managed to hold their cost increases to the level of inflation over this period, real tuition prices would be slightly less today than they were 25 years ago.

What he doesn’t tell you is that over the same period, real GDP increased by 126% (nearly three times as much as state and local support), and total student enrollment by 47%. So state and local subsidies lagged enrollment slightly and lagged our economic capacity to subsidize education massively.

No one who knows anything about social statistics and cares about careful argument would ever cite a stat like a 44% increase in subsidies in isolation, without putting it in some sort of comparative perspective. So, either Bennett is ignorant of the use of statistics, or is consciously using them in a propagandistic fashion. Since Bennett has a master’s in applied economics, and since he quickly shifts to one of the right-wing’s favorite explanations of tuition inflation, excessively generous federal support, conclusions about the motives for his use of the isolated stat almost draw themselves.

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Responses

  1. This is a move I can use. I am ashamed to admit that even though I know a thing or two about stats, I don’t think I’d have figured out what was wrong with that one. And now that it’s crystal clear, I’ll recognize that move in the future. Maybe someday you should compile a short glossary style book on statistical rhetorical tropes, the honest and the false.

  2. you should send this to Bennett — it would be interesting to hear his response.

  3. Ishmael Reed has taken on the Manhattan Institute via his disputations of J. McWhorter. The MI was founded by spook William Casey, which says all.

    How about an interview with Reed? He is very good at throwing wrenches into conventional thinking.

  4. Real state and local subsidies actually increased by 5% on a FTE enrollment-adjusted basis during the 25 year period described. This statistic was included in my original essay, but the editors at Minding the Campus decided not to include it when they published.

    Had colleges kept their costs in line with inflation, tuition would be lower in real terms today than it was 25 years ago.

    And here is what is meant by diminished productivity:

    “Between 1987 and 2007, the number of senior administrators and professional support staff at public two- and four-year colleges increased by 84 percent, while student enrollment grew by only 37 percent. In this sense, administrative productivity dropped by more than 25 percent during this 20 year period, as the student-to-administrator ratio dropped from 24:1 to 18:1. Meanwhile, faculty teaching loads have diminished by a factor of up to two over the past two decades, while salaries have increased by at least the rate of inflation, not accounting for rising health care costs, retirement contributions and other forms of non-wage compensation.”

  5. His response is above.

  6. That is an interesting response. It does seem to show that part of the increases may be due to administrative costs and reduced faculty loads. Increased efficiency might very well be associated with decreased quality so even if his statistics on this were true I am not sure what one should conclude in terms of policy. It would be more efficient for health care systems if we terminated people at 65.
    Anyway what is your response to Bennett?

  7. To start with, total spending on higher ed has gone from 1.6% of US GDP in 1982 to 1.8% in 2007, the two years in Bennett’s comparison. That’s not an enormous increase. What’s really changed, though, is the mix – from 32% personal to 50% personal. Most of the increase has come from a decline in state/local support.

  8. The reconciliation: more people go to college as good paying manufacturing jobs disappear (1982 is a good year to start), the government doesn’t much help them do it, students borrow ever more. Tuitions rise on the tide of borrowed money, colleges distend themselves.

  9. UC Berkeley was free, including fees, up until the Reagan era in California. He then instituted some very modest, by today’s standards, fees.

    Students are protesting the basic fact that higher education is much more expensive now than it was for the generation (or two) before them. And the folks imposing the increases mostly went to college when it was free or almost free.

    If right-wingers have any point, it’s that subsidies are often in the form of student loan interest caps, which is a fleece for the benefit of capital. In the end though, loans screw young workers and are a sham. The blowback to the ruling class will be in the form of constricted domestic consumption, and lower profits rates in that market. But that doesn’t matter right ? GM will sell cars in China and India. (They don’t have any domestic industries they would prefer to support, after all, and are ‘incapable’ of functioning without Western expertise)

  10. No idea about china, but India’s got a pretty decent base of automobile manufacturing – we’ve got a few state owned(but rapidly being privatized) and plenty of private auto-makers. at any rate, the most popular mode of transport in the country is motorbiking, followed by various public transit services.

    also, Chinese industry has a long and proud history of reverse-engineering, before they actually allowed FDI. nobody needs to pay for the western expertise if they dont want to…


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