502. “I Don’t Think the Country Is Turning Away From College.”

    Hearing from individuals with opposing viewpoints and engaging with the outside world can broaden our understanding of others. Education is an essential tool that can benefit everyone, regardless of tribal differences.

    en-usMay 05, 2022

    About this Episode

    Enrollment is down for the first time in memory, and critics complain college is too expensive, too elitist, and too politicized. The economist Chris Paxson — who happens to be the president of Brown University — does not agree. (Part 3 of “Freakonomics Radio Goes Back to School.”)

    🔑 Key Takeaways

    • Colleges need to prioritize resource allocation and finding alternatives to maximize impact for every dollar spent. Addressing income inequality and disparities in student backgrounds is crucial for the future of higher education.
    • Brown University's mission is focused on expanding knowledge through education and research. While expanding student body size may not be feasible, investing in research can have a tremendous impact on society. Universities can also focus on supporting underprivileged students and not-for-profits to change higher education.
    • Private institutions like universities and hospitals may not pay property taxes, but many voluntarily contribute financially to their cities and provide substantial public goods such as education and healthcare.
    • Investing in early childcare and higher education for low-income families and providing equal opportunities for everyone is crucial for promoting economic development and helping individuals reach their full potential, regardless of attending an elite institution.
    • Brown University's endowment is built from restricted gifts, allowing for need-blind admissions and financial aid. Investments are made with a focus on quality not risk-taking, but the value of education and networks is the most important metric.
    • Universities with large endowments should use their funds to make education accessible to students who can't afford tuition. Public institutions with significant endowments should not be ignored as they play a vital role in building public education.
    • State funding cuts, private aid, and university collusion have led to high college prices. Even with aid, costs have increased more than inflation. Allegations of collusion are being investigated.
    • Use net price calculators on university websites to estimate the actual cost of attending college, and consider societal expectations, gender disparities, and university politics when making a decision. Learn more from Freakonomics podcast episodes.
    • Higher education costs are rising due to limited technological advancements and cost disease. While online learning has worked for some courses, traditional models may not change entirely. This could worsen the education gap and increase poverty.
    • With women now comprising of 59.5% of college students, universities need to reclaim low-income men and men of color who are being left behind. This could benefit society as a whole with a more nuanced conversation around flexibility and childcare.
    • While elite education may benefit women, it can also lower their chances of marriage. The issue of family formation and work-life balance must be addressed, and the notion of only having high IQ children is problematic. Economists in leadership positions should cultivate an environment that fosters open dialogue and sensitivity.
    • Universities should support freedom of expression and diverse perspectives while maintaining a safe and inclusive environment for all individuals. Hiring should be based on merit, not political leanings, to promote a community that reflects the diversity of society.
    • Hearing from individuals with opposing viewpoints and engaging with the outside world can broaden our understanding of others. Education is an essential tool that can benefit everyone, regardless of tribal differences.

    📝 Podcast Summary

    The Economics of American Higher Education

    Chris Paxson, an economist and the President of Brown University, discusses the market-driven nature of American higher education, the struggles of mid-tier universities and the recent decline in college enrollment in the US. She emphasizes the importance of resource allocation, thinking on the margin and finding alternatives to get the biggest impact for every dollar spent. Paxson believes that colleges need to do more to shrink income inequality and address the gap between students from wealthy and poor families. She also explains that endowments are not giant savings accounts and discusses the frictions between town and gown.

    Prioritizing High-Touch Education and Investment in Research: Brown University's Mission

    Brown University has always prioritized high-touch, residential undergraduate education, which is why it has grown slowly and with caution. Expansion is not easy and comes with big, fixed costs associated with education such as building new dorms. However, Brown University's mission is to expand knowledge through education and research. Therefore, while expanding the student body may not be feasible at the moment, their investment in research hopes to have a tremendous impact on society by discovering new cures and technologies. To expand access and change higher education, universities should focus on publics and support not-for-profits that lack financial aid resources.

    Private Institutions Contributing to Communities

    Private institutions like universities, hospitals, and religious organizations traditionally do not pay property taxes, but many voluntarily make financial contributions to their cities. Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island is an example of a private institution that contributes to the city through voluntary agreements and paying real-estate taxes on converted properties. The public goods that these institutions provide to their cities and states are substantial, including over 50 percent of physicians in Rhode Island being associated with Brown. Additionally, institutions like Brown are doing a lot to support local schools and offer loan forgiveness for teachers in the urban core. While there may be justified hard feelings from past expansions, private institutions are making an effort to give back to their communities.

    The Importance of Promoting Economic Development for Low-Income Families and Investing in Opportunities for All Individuals.

    The United States is not doing enough to promote economic development for low-income families, particularly in the areas of early childcare and higher education. Ivy League colleges and universities receive a disproportionate amount of attention and focus, likely due to increasing income inequality in America and the perception that these institutions provide a golden ticket to high-end prosperity. While attending elite schools may not be the sole cause of success, evidence suggests that many low-income students who attend these institutions end up in the top 1 percent of earners. However, it is also possible that these students may have achieved success regardless of attending an elite institution. As a society, it is important that we invest more in creating opportunities for all individuals to reach their full potential.

    Understanding Brown University's Endowment

    Brown University's endowment is not a giant savings account that can be used for any purpose, it is made up of gifts from donors that are targeted for specific needs like scholarships and faculty research. The growth in the endowment has allowed Brown to be need-blind and provide generous financial aid. The investment office is focused on finding high-quality investors to place money with and the returns are not due to excessive risk-taking. Brown's success should not be measured solely on investment returns, but on the valuable education and social networks it provides to students.

    Confidentiality Agreements in University Investments and the Importance of Making Education Accessible

    Brown University President, Christina Paxson, shares that the confidentiality agreements around university investments prevent less-privileged universities from copying their successful investment strategies. Paxson highlights that schools with large endowments have an obligation to use them to bring in students who can't afford full tuition. Brown University offers free tuition to families with less than $125,000 income per year. Paxson emphasizes that public institutions, with significant endowments like private institutions, shouldn't be ignored. As a proponent for building public education, Paxson recognizes the importance of making education accessible to everyone, regardless of financial standing.

    The Rising Cost of College Tuition: Factors and Allegations

    College tuition inflation is largely driven by declining state aid for public schools and a mix of need-based and merit aid for private institutions. The burden on families is increasing while funding for public institutions is decreasing, leading to inflated prices. Allegations of collusion on financial aid by universities like Brown, Yale, Georgetown, and Northwestern are currently being investigated. Brown denies involvement in this group and has not been a member since 2012. High sticker prices are often reduced by competition and aid, but the actual cost for students has still increased more than inflation over time.

    Navigating the True Costs of College

    The sticker price of attending college can be misleading. Students often receive aid or pay nothing at all. By using net price calculators on university websites, families can estimate what it will actually cost to attend. The impact of federal loans on rising tuition is unclear, and healthcare costs have contributed to rising college costs, but society's expectations on universities have also changed. The gender gap on college campuses and the political leanings of universities are also important considerations. Several Freakonomics podcast episodes offer further insight on these topics.

    The Impact of Cost Disease on Higher Education during the COVID-19 Pandemic

    The concept of cost disease, where wage increase outpaces productivity, contributes to the rising tuition costs in higher education. This is due to the limited technological advancements in the education sector, unlike other industries. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced online learning, but the social experience of attending college cannot be replaced virtually. Graduate and professional programs, as well as targeted skill-based courses, have adapted well to online learning. However, the traditional higher education model will likely not change entirely. The pandemic has also widened the education gap, affecting public institutions and community colleges. This could exacerbate inequality and possibly lead to increased poverty.

    The Gender Split in College Populations and its Implications

    The gender split in college populations has shifted, with women now making up 59.5% of college students. This has implications for the earnings and career opportunities of students, especially low-income men and men of color who are being left behind. Universities need to address this by making efforts to reclaim these students. The notion that college campuses have become feminized and anti-male is a ridiculous argument. The downstream effect of having more well-educated women in various fields could shift workplace cultures and lead to a more nuanced conversation around issues of flexibility and childcare, benefiting society as a whole.

    The Impact of Elite Education on Women's Marriage Probability

    Women may benefit more from elite education than men, but it may also decrease their likelihood of marriage. The issue of family formation and fertility rate needs to be addressed, and if the difficulty of incorporating family life into work life is the cause, it presents a problem. The idea that the best-educated women should have children solely for high IQ in the population is crass. Economists as university presidents need to pay attention to the culture they develop to engage people in a conversation. Being an economist is not enough, one needs a lot of sensitivity and rational analysis.

    Ensuring Respectful Dialogue and Diversity on University Campuses

    University campuses should be a place of constructive irreverence where ideas are interrogated and questioned in a respectful manner. However, universities must also ensure that individuals are not harassed or discriminated against. This approach allows for the advancement of knowledge without compromising the safety and acceptance of individuals. Hiring decisions should also be based on research rather than political affiliations, ensuring a diverse community of ideas. However, universities must work towards creating a politically heterogenous community to better represent the country's diverse population.

    The Importance of Diverse Perspectives in Higher Education

    Chris Paxson, the president of Brown University, emphasizes the importance of providing opportunities for students to hear from people with different views and to engage with the world beyond campus. She believes in the value of education and notes that most American families want to send their children to good colleges. However, she acknowledges the need for better communication about the investments required to support higher education at the state and federal levels. In a time when college education can be seen as an elite product, Paxson believes that it is essential to make the case for education as an asset that can benefit everyone, not just a signifier of tribal divide. The key takeaway is that exposure to diverse perspectives and real-world experiences can help us understand and appreciate others' viewpoints, and education is crucial to realizing this goal.

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