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The Freakonomics of Higher Education: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Podcasts are one of my favorite ways to absorb information and explore my interests wherever I am and whenever I want. I love obtaining a new perspective around the world and applying it to my various interests.

Freakonomics Radio is among the ranks of podcasts with this thought-provoking ability. The show is hosted by Stephen J. Dubner, one of the original hosts of the Freakonomics book series.
With Freakonomics Radio already being one of my favorite podcasts, I was ecstatic to see a series dedicated to higher education. The three-episode series provides hours of insight into the good, bad, and ugly about college and the life after it – all through an economist’s eyes. Despite the ugly, I found the series fascinating and learned so much just out of three episodes – this summary is for anyone who wants to learn the crux of the Freakonomics Radio higher education series.

Episode 500 – “What Exactly is College For?”

The first episode, “What Exactly is College For?,” critically investigates the dilemma between student success and profits for higher education institutions. Dubner informs us that economists view college as the best investment anyone can make in their lives, a contribution to the individual and society as a whole. It is said that college is the gateway to sufficient lifetime earnings and a first-class ticket to the middle class. However, confidence in higher education institutions is declining for people outside of the economic sect. Only 38% of Americans over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree and this number has been shrinking since the COVID-19 Pandemic. This trend leads Dubner to the fundamental problem of higher education: “college is incredibly valuable for individuals and society, but it’s still a somewhat rarefied activity, and even a shrinking one … So what, exactly, is college for?”

To answer this, Dubner inspects the “car-dealer part” of higher education – the fact that colleges, just like a used car dealership, are a business; and like all other businesses, colleges and universities must differentiate themselves from competitors in order to attract demand. Dubner identifies price and prestige as the two greatest traits institutions modify to attract students. The prices of community colleges, state schools, and private universities vary significantly and hold a great influence on the demographics of their student body. Not to mention, since the Civil War, universities have sought to acquire the most distinguished faculty and most robust curriculum in order to get ahead.

According to Dubner and Morty Schapiro, president of Northwestern University, the desire to differentiate has deepened preexisting magnitudes of inequality within the United States. They refer to elite schools as merely a “sideshow”, educating the smallest fraction of the American population, usually those already with adequate resources. Instead, they say, more focus should be on the mid-tier public and private universities, as well as community colleges – the institutions that truly foster economic mobility for lower-income and minority students.

Opening banner image on the Prairie View A&M University homepage depicting students marching on a football field with flags

Dubner ends the episode with an investigation of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) along with guest Ruth Simmons, President of Prairie View A&M University and former President of Brown University. According to Simmons, currently, only 10% of enrolled African American students attend an HBCU, yet these institutions are the source of 25% of Black graduates in STEM, 80% of Black judges, 70% of Black doctors, and 40% of Black members of Congress. She believes that HBCUs with a clear mission for facilitating student success cause the prominence of HBCU graduates in these fields. To Simmons, college is for making a student the best they can be, not fostering elitism.

Episode 501 – “The University of Impossible-to-Get-Into”

Like the first episode in the series, Episode 501 enlightens listeners about the inequalities within the world of higher education; this time, focusing on admissions and brand equity. Just like Willy Wonka, getting into the wonderful world of an elite education is rare, and often involves help from your wealthy parents to achieve. Dubner recalls the scandal of Full House actress, Lori Loughlin, who paid half a million dollars to get her daughters into the highly selective University of Southern California.

The University of California banner image on the homepage depicting to smiling students on campus

Celebrities pay such a large sum to get their kids into these schools not just for the educational value, but rather for the brand value which is usually characterized by a distinguished faculty and an emphasis on research. USC, as well as other elite and Ivy League schools, are all part of the aforementioned competitive class of higher education institutions, each carrying with them a distinct brand that attracts thousands of applicants each year. College as a whole, one might argue, is just an attempt to gain notability. Dubner mentions the book The Case Against Education by Bryan Caplan which argues that college degrees function merely as a social signal, “a way to tell the world that you are worth hiring, worth being friends with, perhaps worth being intimidated by.”

However, despite their tremendous applicant pool, these schools maintain a minuscule acceptance rate. Schools in the top 2% have only grown their student population by 7% from 1990 to 2015, while other institutions have increased their student population by 60% on average. Elite schools remain small because this is how they believe they can best achieve their brand of excellence, and be perceived among the most prestigious and desirable institutions.

Yet, some American schools have expanded their student body population while also maintaining their status. Dubner and guests hold the University of California as the strongest example of this model. The university has remained elite while also increasing its acceptance rate proportionally to the population of California. To do this, the University of California opened ten new campuses, four of which are in the top 25 of the U.S. News & World Report. Whether east-coast schools will follow the UC model is unclear, east-coast Ivy Leagues like Harvard and others, do not need to worry about their enrollment size. Their status allows them to build generous endowments and permits them to uptick prices for new students. Therefore, Dubner’s podcast suggests, it seems that remaining prestigious and exclusive can be beneficial for higher education institutions.

Episode 502 – “I Don’t Think the Country is Turning Away from College”

The last episode in the higher education series involves financial aid and the shifting attitudes toward college following the COVID-19 Pandemic. Dubner revisits critiques about Ivy Leagues being too elitist with Brown President, Chris Paxson, who argues that expansion is extremely difficult due to relations with adjacent neighborhoods. Instead of expansion, Paxson sees research as Brown’s method for expanding knowledge and the university’s main contribution to society as a whole.

The Brown university homepage banner photo depicting the brown campus

Paxson then explains common misconceptions about endowments. She explains, “An endowment is not a giant savings account that we can use for whatever we want. It actually comprises literally thousands of gifts from donors that are targeted to very specific purposes. And when that endowment grows, the extra money that comes out has to go to that purpose” Brown’s endowment is mainly utilized for financial aid, which has led to Brown granting more support than public institutions such as the University of Rhode Island.

Next, Dubner and Paxson break down the changes Ivy Leagues witnessed during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Brown, and almost every other institution across the globe, learned that remote learning was an optimal medium for targeting skill-based programs, but extremely unpopular for students, faculty, parents, and alumni.

Additionally, COVID decreased Brown’s enrollment rates, especially for lower-income men and men of color. Critics have used this to argue that elite colleges are becoming too “feminized” – and that politics are taking over the classroom. Paxson thinks this assumption is absurd and that, “if you look at where the gender gaps are the biggest – it’s all over the place. It’s in community colleges. I don’t think anybody’s claiming that community colleges have become feminized.” However, she argues that higher female enrollment will cause massive shifts of flexibility in the workplace and society’s valuation of work and family.

Paxson admits that Brown is one of the more liberal campuses in the country. However, Paxson believes that it is impossible to advance knowledge without questioning every perspective. She emphasizes the importance of interrogating ideas, yet leaving room for compassion, understanding, and respect. The episode ends with Paxson explaining that she does not think the country is turning away from college and that most American families continue to want their children to pursue a college degree, despite assumptions that higher education is elitist, tribalist, and divisive.

Sometimes, we neglect to ask about the purpose of pursuing a degree, whether it is worth it, and who really belongs there. Most view college as a natural good that should not have its validity questioned. Dubner’s deep dive into higher education takes a step back and shines a spotlight on the socioeconomic intricacies of higher education. He and his guests explained how universities, just like other businesses, hold their brand image on a pedestal in order to maximize demand. However, although some schools might utilize a marketing strategy with a likeness to a sports car ad campaign, this does not undermine the importance of the institution of higher education. Dubner and his guests emphasized time and time again that college remains a tool necessary for social mobility. To see this, Dubner argues, society and the government must divert their attention away from the most elite institutions and focus on less selective schools, the site of results and growth.


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