Take a recent entry from the New York Times: Bringing Tech Culture to the Staid College Quad. First of all, what non-hibernating person thinks the college quad is staid? A major Atlantic Monthly analysis of "The Dark Power of Fraternities" showed being on the quad endangers your health. In staid Santa Barbara this year, some of my students were date-raped, stalked, framed by the local cops, and killed in a drive-by shooting. The college quad sees protests about racism, abortion, foreign policy, police violence, and administrative misconduct. The quad does teaching and research that is generally over the horizon of the average newsroom. Staid is a patronizing and ridiculous word for today’s universities, which are fully immersed in their surrounding societies, while having also to stay ahead of them.
If the outdated stereotype is one problem with college coverage, falling for sales pitches is another. Journalists seem now to believe that professional educators are a selfish special interest, while corporate marketers are impartial observers who offer the true picture.
The Staid Quad article is about the high cost of college textbooks.
In a report last year, the Government Accountability Office said the price of new textbooks rose 82 percent from 2002 to 2012, only slightly less than the 89 percent rise in tuition and fees, and far higher than the 28 percent rise in overall consumer prices.Very bad. Textbook prices are outrageous. Who gets to explain the problem? Dan Rosensweig, the chief executive of Chegg, an education services company. “Learning has been an inefficient market,” he says. This fits with the stereotype that teaching is inefficient and teachers like it that way, so they are just fine with overpriced texts. Chegg.com’s comparative shopping service is apparently the answer – improving price information will make textbooks a more efficient market and thereby lower prices.
Actually, no. Students aren’t price gouged by universities or their generally sad, post-book “bookstores” that sell big gulp water bottles and school sweatshirts. Students aren’t price gouged by faculty, who have zero control over text pricing. Students are price gouged by publishing monopolies, who set prices on a captive audience. Academic publishers are gradually strangling university libraries to get 20-36% profit margins on scientific journals, where investigators review for free but pay to publish. The same goes for textbooks. You can't write a good article on excessive textbook prices unless you can say "exploitative economics of academic publishing," but that's what this ed-tech article does. Textbook prices have risen because for-profit educational services make as much money as they possibly can off students, and seek market positions that protect this pricing power. Sure enough, Chegg charges for tutoring and job placement services that universities currently provide their students for free. And yet we are supposed to think that Chegg-style for-profit services will cure cost problems that their sector has produced.
There have been free services at the public college near you, but not such good free services anymore, since the public colleges that serve the lower- and middle-income, socially-un-networked students who really need job placement have been subject to year after year, decade after decade of budget cuts. These public colleges now spend in many cases ten to fifteen cents on the dollar Harvard spends on its students. The California Community College system, with its wealth of first-generation and low-income students, has 2000 students per advisor. So why don’t the CC's have more advisors. Because they don't have the money. Why don't they have they money? Now we're getting to the right question.
They don't have money because state politicians keep cutting their budgets. This pushes us one more step. Why these constant cuts to the state share of higher ed? Well, there are strong competitors that weren't around 50 years ago, like Medicaid and the world's most overactive prison system.
But there is also the tax avoidance culture of the corporate America to which “educational services” companies belong. Think Apple, tax avoidance champion on 35% profit margins (important revelations here and here). Think Google, who furnished the engineer who started Udacity, the company dedicated to driving market inefficiencies out of teaching by replacing teachers with screens—until that turned out not actually to work. Think the whole iEconomy, engaged in continuous tax arbitrage and thus social disinvesting around the world. Think effective corporate tax rates at 12.1%, 1/3rd the nominal rate, 1/3rd the rate you and I pay. Think Bechtel, UC's partner in national lab management, "one of the country’s largest engineering firms, [re]organized as [an] S-corporation to avoid corporate income taxes." Think the growing gap between corporate profits and corporate tax returns, on the federal level, which is not so different from trends in the states, where corporate taxes are down to 5% of revenues (California).
Whether or not the products of the private alternatives to public universities actually work, the cuts continue, conveniently for Chegg et al., who can charge for services that used to be free in the public universities that tax arbitrage continues to destroy.
Should journalists have to talk tax code every time they praise ed tech? No. Should they ask whether the educational solutions of corporate marketers aren’t in fact the problem? Absolutely yes.
And what I am as a professor doing about the high price of textbooks. What I have always done: Order old editions that have lots of used copies around. Put copies on reserve in the library. Give desk copies away. Scan and post documents on protected websites. And of course overuse my departmental xerox machine--which we'll have money to replace around 2023.