The saddest part of the debate over how to rein in the cost of college is that rising prices have not been tied to any real improvement in the quality of education. Skyrocketing tuition, it’s generally agreed, has been brought on by the expansion of student services. There are nothing but bad choices, it seems: Allow the status quo to persist and saddle students with debt that will hamper their ability to buy houses, start families, or even get the jobs they need to pay off their debt. Or make college (and graduate school, argues Samual Garner, a bioethicist who chronicled his personal student-debt crisis in Slate) taxpayer-funded, and risk a larger and more catastrophic version of the cost escalation that can come with a pot of free money.
While extravagances such as hot tubs, movie theaters, and climbing walls may seem to make this discussion distinctively modern, parts of today’s college-cost dilemma are recognizable, in fact, in an 18th-century debate about how best to finance a university’s operations. It was so important that Adam Smith took time out of analyzing more traditional economic subjects like the corn laws to devote a long section of The Wealth of Nations to it. And with cause: The Scottish universities of the 18th century, much like America’s today, had been quickly becoming the universally acknowledged ticket to social advancement.
Smith, despite accusations of Connery-esque misplaced nationalism, was justly proud of the Scottish system of universities, which ran on a radical (by today’s standards, at least) system in which students paid their professors directly. Scotland had begun the 18th century with the humiliating Act of Union, which rendered it subject to the British Empire and shuttered its parliament. The country then boasted only three universities, all of which taught an obsolete, traditional medieval curriculum (in Latin, no less), and carried a reputation as a backwater of subsistence farmers and awkward, only recently semi-civilized rubes.
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