April 18, 2015

HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE UPDATE:  President Obama’s labor-dominated NLRB agrees to hear a petition by Columbia grad students who seek the right to unionize.  The grad students want to join the United Auto Workers (that’s not a typo) because they claim they’re being treated like serfs by universities who understand that there is a glut of Ph.D.s and that most grad students will never score permanent, tenure-track positions.According to today’s Wall Street Journal editorial:

The universities argue that unionization would make the nature of their relationship with students adversarial. They too have a case. Most of America’s top universities aren’t unionized. So the schools have valid concern about elevating union interests over academic merit. Meanwhile, NYU is a rare private university that has voluntarily recognized a grad-student union.

But none of this lets academe off the hook. For one thing, the universities contribute to a glut of Ph.D.s by admitting students who take out loans (some 40% of the $1 trillion in student debt is for graduate school) even when they know few will ever work as full professors. By admitting them into graduate programs, the schools in effect are producing for themselves a low-paid work force.

“To put it crudely, they are hiring their own serfs,” says Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economist who runs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. He says it’s “as much a moral issue as an economic one.” A university truly devoted to the well-being of its students would be more honest to grad students about the dismal job prospects for Ph.D.s—and more candid to undergrads about their actual instructors.

Unionization isn’t the best solution for grad students or universities. Mr. Vedder has a better idea when he suggests that universities accept some responsibility for defaults on student loans or pick up some of the tab for students who can’t find jobs after graduation.

Of course the real solution is to shut down the bulk of these duplicative, unneeded Ph.D. programs, eliminate the supply glut, and let these students put their talents to work in another field.  Unionizing grad students only kicks the can down the road, giving them more money while they’re in school, with no improvement in their prospects for long-term employment.  More importantly, unionization will further raise the cost of tuition for everyone.

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