In Praise of Logic

This is dedicated to Father Anthony Lang, the professor who taught me logic and aesthetics in college.  The two classes combined to show the beauty of clear thinking.

Mount Holyoke College has received a lot of press in the past week or so for announcing that it will freeze tuition next year.  Here’s just one article on the topic.

On the surface, this would appear to be a good thing for students, who have been subjected to rapidly rising tuition rates since the early 1980′s.  And, when something appears to be good on the surface, it’s typical that praise follows for the person (or the institution) doing the good.

So, while the idea is, in fact, good, all other things being equal, the praise is in some ways seriously flawed.  Having loved my logic class and my management decision classes in graduate school (the textbook for which was written by this guy, from whom you should never ever accept an offer to buy a $20 bill for a dollar in a contest), the problem seemed obvious.  It’s this: The problem of anchoring.

The assumption is that Mount Holyoke was appropriately priced in the first place.  If they were, then my argument falls to dust.  But if they were dramatically overpriced, then the praise should turn to scorn for just freezing, and not cutting it.

An example for you: A trustee once made the comment to me that “The administration has grown faster since 2005 than the faculty.  That’s clearly not right.”  Well, maybe.  But there are two problems with that statement: The first is that there is no reason to start with 2005; it just happened to be the first number in the report he looked at.  The second problem is that your implicit assumption is that in 2005 the levels of faculty and staff were appropriate.  If we were 30% under-staffed or 10% over-facultyed (not a word, I know) in that year, then what appears to be an inappropriate increase may in fact be just right.  Or even not enough.

To be honest, I don’t know whether Mount Holyoke was over-priced or under-priced this year; we in higher education really have no way of determining such things.  My data analysis might lend a clue, but I’m not sure it’s rigorous enough to publish. That’s not really the point.

But I am guessing most of the people praising them for freezing tuition don’t know either, and doing so might be like praising Al Capone for not shooting more people.

In a world where tuition is often set by the things we think we need (climbing walls, or lazy rivers), or the tuition our competitors get away with charging, this may in fact be the first, important step. So good for Holyoke; even a cynic like me can admit that not raising it is probably better than raising it.  For now.

It would be great if someone could take it a step farther and set college tuition in a more rational and fair way.  We have a lot of history to overcome, and a lot of dramatic increases to turn back to get any where near that.

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