| February 1, 2011

Oklahoma needs to spend less, not more, on higher education

You’ve heard it a thousand times and can probably repeat it in your sleep: “Investing more in higher education will spur economic growth. Oklahoma needs more college graduates if we hope to compete in the 21st century economy.”

In response, here are three suggestions for Oklahoma policymakers.

Consider the seen and the unseen. I would be the first to agree that more engineering graduates emerging from Norman or Stillwater would likely benefit the economy. (More sociology graduates from Wilburton or more recreation graduates from Durant, not so much.) But it is important to look beyond the special-interest pleading of college presidents and higher-education bureaucrats and to consider also that which is unseen. As economist Richard Vedder once pointed out in an article for OCPA, government spending on higher education “forces a transfer of resources from market-driven and competitive enterprises in the highly productive private sector to a not-for-profit organization with no definable bottom line and few incentives to reduce costs.”

Thus, it is perhaps not surprising that Dr. Vedder and others have found a negative relationship between state spending on higher education and state economic growth. Remember, every dollar that goes to pay an assistant women’s volleyball coach at Panhandle State or a “Queer Theory” instructor at OU is a dollar not available for an income-tax cut to benefit Oklahoma entrepreneurs.

Stop inflating the higher education bubble. Dr. Vedder has uncovered what he calls “the single most scandalous statistic in higher education”—namely, that “approximately 60 percent of the increase in the number of college graduates from 1992 to 2008 worked in jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics considers relatively low skilled—occupations where many participants have only high school diplomas and often even less.”

As he and others point out in a new report, “colleges and universities are turning out graduates faster than America’s labor markets are creating jobs that traditionally have been reserved for those with degrees. More than one-third of current working graduates are in jobs that do not require a degree, and the proportion appears to be rising rapidly. … Indeed, 60 percent of the increased college graduate population between 1992 and 2008 ended up in these lower skill jobs, raising real questions about the desirability of pushing to increase the proportion of Americans attending and graduating from four year colleges and universities. This, along with other evidence on the negative relationship between government higher education spending and economic growth, suggests we may have significantly ‘over invested’ public funds in colleges and universities.”

It’s no wonder then that venture capitalist Peter Thiel is offering grants of up to $100,000 for students to drop out of college, or that columnist Jerry Bowyer observes (“The Coming College Education Bubble”) that “higher education’s price-earnings ratio looks like Nevada housing circa 2007.”

Quit wasting our hard-earned money. “Never take a dollar from a free citizen through the coercion of taxation without a very legitimate purpose,” says Gov. Mitch Daniels (R-IN). “We have a solemn duty to spend that dollar as carefully as possible, because when we took it we diminished that person’s freedom.” Policymakers should ask themselves if the following are “legitimate purposes.”

Massive growth in administrative overhead.
Using a taxpayer-funded credit card to buy tens of thousands of dollars of lingerie, sex toys, video games, DVDs, romance novels, diet pills, beauty products, and more. Has there been any subsequent legislative oversight on this matter? Can taxpayers be confident this isn’t still happening?
Harmful programs and instructors which promote socially destructive ideologies.
Courses such as “Spelling and Phonics” and “Pre-College English.” Taxpayers have already paid for elementary and secondary education once. Why should they have to pay for it again?
Other courses (e.g., “Badminton,” “Principles of Floral Arranging,” “Beginning Bowling,” “Puppetry I,” and “Billiards”) of dubious value.
Academic “research” which is beyond parody. In an article entitled “Towards Queering Food Studies: Foodways, Heteronormativity, and Hungry Women in Chicana Lesbian Writing,” a University of Oklahoma professor writes:
As the nascent field of food studies takes shape, insights from queer studies have the potential to enrich our understandings of the interrelationships among food, gender, and sexuality. The project of queering food studies invites us to consider how food practices and beliefs reinforce and resist heterosexual gender ideologies. In this article, I analyze foodways in recent Chicana lesbian literature, examining writings that illustrate the cultural endurance of heteronormative constructions of gender even as they demonstrate how these beliefs are disrupted, destabilized, and transformed in queer literary kitchens. Poetry and essays by Chicana lesbians challenge dominant models of Chicana culinary roles by emphasizing women's efforts to satisfy their physical and sexual appetites. In particular, Carla Trujillo's 2003 novel, What Night Brings, highlights the figure of the hungry lesbian as a provocative counterpoint to the literary image of the Chicana as cook. Literature by Chicana lesbians not only invites scholars to question heteronormative assumptions about food, gender, and identity, but also demonstrates the potential of queer studies to enrich a variety of topics in food scholarship.

In summary, “just as a farmer might go past the point of diminishing returns in fertilizing his field, so too has the U.S. gone past the point of diminishing returns on encouraging people to get college degrees,” George Leef writes.

Or as researcher Jay Schalin puts it, “state investment in higher education fits the classic ‘Laffer Curve’ model for diminishing marginal returns (Laffer’s original model demonstrated that higher tax rates eventually led to lower tax revenues). As states invest more money in university systems, the returns from each new dollar spent diminish. Eventually, the returns become negative … Quite likely, more spending on higher education will hurt, not help the economy.”

“We need to spend much less taxpayer money on higher education,” says Cato scholar Neal McCluskey, “not much more.”

UPDATE: OCPA fiscal policy director Jonathan Small sends along this note.

The Office of State Finance (OSF) keeps a monthly report of the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) state employees. According to the summary page of the latest OSF FTE report (as of December FY-2011), there is an average grand total of 70,175.8 FTEs. Of that number, the Regents and higher education (all of the colleges and universities) have an average of 33,496.5. Yes, you read that right: higher education employs nearly half of the state’s employees. Moreover, according to Gov. Brad Henry’s FY-2011 Executive Budget (Appendix D-9), the actual FTEs in colleges and universities have increased from 30,070.9 in FY-2006 to 33,318.1 in FY-2010. Yes, Oklahoma’s colleges and universities have found the need to add 3,247.2 FTEs in just four years.

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