Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Right Angle Club 2010
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Paying For College - II

{The Cosmos Club Washington D.C.}
The Cosmos Club Washington D.C.

To begin with an anecdote, I belong to a Philadelphia club which reciprocates with the Cosmos Club in Washington DC. It's a handy place to stay overnight on the rather infrequent occasion of visits to Washington on business. It happened I had an early breakfast at the Cosmos and was the only guest in the dining room. A pleasant well-dressed man came in and asked if I minded if we sat together. "I'm Bob Goheen. I work at Princeton." Since he was widely known as the President of Princeton University, he was indeed welcome. He could hardly be expected to know my daughter was then a sophomore at his college, so he was, of course, unprepared for what I had to say.

{Empty Pockets}
Empty Pockets

After introductory pleasantries, I told him of my arithmetic problem. My daughter was taking five courses, so the family was paying ten thousand dollars a year, per course. Since most of her courses had over two hundred students in the lecture hall, the University was being paid two million dollars to teach each course. Was it possible I had got the arithmetic wrong? Mr. Goheen neither flushed nor displayed hostility, but his manner did change. Well, of course, the tuition pays for far more than direct teaching costs. It's expensive to maintain a first-class library, the University has a responsibility to help the town of Princeton with its problems, the University is proud of its very extensive scholarship program for needy students, there is research to be sponsored. Yes, said I, you have fallen into the trap I prepared for you. My complaint is that if I had donated money for those worthy causes, it would all be tax-deductible; but by having it extracted from me under the name of tuition, I was denied the tax advantage. As expected, he quickly changed the subject. And to his evident relief, I let him do so without resistance.

Since that time, I have had the opportunity to play the same game with several college presidents; not all of them have been suave about it. The only one who took me by complete surprise was the President of Lehigh University, who not only told me he agreed but added that he had made himself unpopular with his peers by promoting exactly similar ideas. There is a very serious problem, here. Somehow, the higher education industry has got to engage in some statesmanship because it is only a matter of very short time before someone proposes a government solution.

{National Institutes of Health}
National Institutes of Health

It is possible to treat this issue as a problem of how to pay for universal college education, which would put it in a category now occupied by health care, and probably reach a political impasse for similar reasons. Or it could be treated as a problem of teasing apart the instructional costs from the research and scholarly costs. The problem to be solved, viewed from this latter direction, assumes that excellent teaching could occur, isolated from the scholarly activities, in the manner now accepted for secondary and elementary teaching. Conversely, research institutes with no teaching responsibilities are widely accepted in Europe, for instance, while in America the National Institutes of Health are their most prominent example of its workability. It can be argued that a scholar engaged in research makes a better teacher; it can also be argued that talent for teaching is not necessarily found in those with a talent for research. While it is true that some researchers are productive even in old age, for the most part, research is like poetry and sports, a young person's game. A creative scientist can usually look forward to acting as an administrator after reaching a certain age; why not instead look forward to a career in teaching? There appears to be no serious problem with this suggestion, except the nontrivial issue of relative prestige linked to ascending income. In summary, the question is whether we can afford to put another Harvard in every town of a specified size, or whether we will be forced to transform most existing colleges into enlarged high schools, as we build more of them. Obviously, that's a cheaper method, the question is whether it is a good enough product. Whatever the model to be mass produced, the overall cost would be reduced by stripping out populations who do not need so much education, and getting Google or IBM, or someone similar, to apply massive amounts of information technology to reducing the cost. In achieving universal health care, by contrast, we can reasonably foresee research reducing most of the delivery costs we now contend with, even eliminating some of the major diseases. In education for a service economy, the potentially increasing educational need is unfortunately endless.

Therefore, no matter what pattern we adopt, it must be organized to be in competitive tension with the manpower needs of the economy, rather than unmeasurable goals like becoming well rounded. If the reason we need a vastly more educated population is to supply better-educated graduates to run the economy, some kind of tension must exist between the two, or the educational establishment will ruin us with purposeless expansion, just as some elements of the healthcare industry might wish to do with their services, and almost all trial lawyers unashamedly wish for in their area of expertise.

In this area of economic design, lies the answer which President Goheen should have made to me in the Cosmos Club. By asking for a massive tax deduction, I was yielding to the idea that education was always a responsibility of government, always paid for by rejiggering the tax code. In that direction lies disaster, since control of the tax code lies in the realm of politics and leads to populist solutions. We must not unbalance power relationships so that economic leaders, asking for a better-educated workforce, are not eventually confronted with crippling taxation for the betterment of bloated academia. A typical college has as many employees as students. We cannot get caught up in an unrestrained process leading to half of the population teaching the other half, except for those who have retired and receive a pension from both activities. Rather, this expensive quest for quality must be seen as the other half of the immigrant's dream, which is no longer that of average performance in an industrial economy, but rather that of excellence in a service economy.

Originally published: Friday, March 12, 2010; most-recently modified: Friday, May 31, 2019