Arnold Kling  

Higher Education Lobby

Squeezed Up... Outsourcing = Economic Activit...

The Washington Post looks into one of the dirty little secrets about the higher education industry: its intense political lobbying.

The more-established schools want to block legislation that would, among other things, make it easier for students to transfer academic credits to the traditional schools from the fast-growing upstarts.

...Universities are among Washington's most active lobbyists. There are at least 50 educational organizations, as varied as the National Association of Schools of Dance and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. In addition, lots of individual institutions maintain lobbying offices here, the biggest of which is the University of California, which has 12 employees in downtown D.C. Dozens of schools retain contract lobbyists.

For Discussion. Economists equate lobbying with rent-seeking, meaning trying to influence government to transfer more income to the lobbyists' constituency. In the case of higher education, is rent-seeking the motivation for lobbying?

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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Bernard Yomtov writes:

The for-profit schools' position is ludicrous. They are saying, to quote from the article, "English 101 is English 101." That's nonsense. That the claim seems to be taken seriously by some Congressmen, like Boehner, is appalling.

Different schools have different class sizes, different content, different requirements, different quality of students and teachers. To claim that any two introductory English classes are equivalent is idiotic. The logical conclusion is that all the courses are equivalent, which thay plainly are not.

And why is that Congress' business anyway? If University A doesn't want to give credit for courses taken at University B, why should they have to? If you don't like it, don't transfer.

There is rent-seeking going on here, by the for-profit schools.

Adam writes:

The university I went to sent some students to DC each year to lobby for the university's interests (they also sent students to Albany once a year for the same purpose). I did it for two years. It focused on two things -- increasing funding for grant-based financial aid, and increasing research money (both on the aggregate level). Those probably are not the only things they lobby for, but it is definitely believable that these are among the top priorities, if not the very top priorities.

William Woodruff writes:

The office(s) are not there to bake cookies and spread good will (in other words, of course they are rent seeking..)


Jonathan Brown writes:

Rent seeking here is present but probably more on the other side. The proprietaries want to say that their approach to teaching is the same as traditional higher education. But there are differences. Some of those are probably silly - but the reductum argument made by the proprietaries is specious. There should be improvements in the way that all educational institutions relate to each other - but mandated government interventions seem the least likely to improve the level of communication.

One also wonders why the owner of one of the largest proprietary institutions in the world is pushing so hard on this (albeit with limited disclosure of that interest).

Lawrance George Lux writes:

Rent-seeking is present on both sides, because Student hours taught means cash. Prestige Universities want all Student hours taught within the institution, while lesser schools want a wealth of transfers. This is not the question to be addressed: Is the quality of teaching equivalent or not?

The answer is that in lower Grade mandatory classes, they are approximately the same. In higher Undergraduate classes, the answer is probably still yes they are equivalent. Can such still be said of Graduate level courses--the answer is still probably yes they are equivalent. The rationale is the equivalence of the material covered. I would not have acquired any education, if I had to await the absolute best Instructors, or the model Class size. I even went to college back in the days when they did not use computers much. I still survived. lgl

The one aspect of all this that we should keep in the forefront is that a major effect of the growth of government is this: it enables an expansion in the depth and breadth of rent-seeking activities generally. Without a pot of rich rents available, the level and intensity of rent-seeking would diminish. Rent-seeking in the pre-20th century was relatively limited to nobles, a relatively small class of merchants and the church. In modern America, anyone can get into the act -- and eventually does.

Tom Kaminski writes:

There are a couple of issues here. 1) Rent seeking--yes, colleges of all sorts are involved in that. But, 2) Why is the federal govt getting involved in this issue? Shouldn't institutions (both public and private) be allowed to decide for themselves what credits they wish to accept? Some states (many? perhaps all?) have rules about accepting transfer credit from various kinds of institutions within the state, but at least in some states, schools are asked to sign on to a proposal about accepting credit, and they can negotiate terms. 3) Is English 101 the same in all places? This has been under dispute for a long time. Many colleges and universities, for instance, have argued that the classes are not taught at the same level at community colleges as they are at 4-year colleges. My friends who teach at community colleges deny this, and I suspect that there is a certain amount of academic snobbery involved in the claims made by the 4-year schools. And yet, I have little doubt that English 101 at Yale is taught at a higher level than it is at most other colleges and universities. So there almost certainly are differences as you move from one level or kind of school to another; but the question is whether they are significant enough to disqualify those who took the class at the less prestigious institution. My own guide is this: if a student comes into a college class and is insufficiently prepared, he or she will struggle in that class. So the lack of preparation is itself a penalty. If the student can overcome the deficiency, fine; if not, the grade should show it. This allows for openness of opportunity, but it also requires that faculty demand a lot of their students and grade with some rigor.

But to me, the main point still is--what in the world is the federal government doing intervening in this issue?! TK

Patri Friedman writes:

Yes, it is rent-seeking. There is a certain value to having an accredited degree. There is even more value to having a prestigious one. Prestige is a fixed commodity - not every school can be a top 10 school. Therefore it is a fixed resource and vulnerable to rent-seeking.

They are not trying to get the government to transfer new wealth. They are trying to prevent others from sharing access to the fixed source of wealth that comes from being an established educational institution. Just like pro-licensing efforts in any field.

David Foster writes:

Of course it's rent-seeking; it's also socially harmful. Students at the for-profit institutions are usually not from the higher economic classes and, to the extent that transfer of credits is inhibited, it becomes more difficult for them to obtain the prestige of a traditional college degree...which in turn reduces social mobility.

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