George Leef writes for the Martin Center about a critical problem associated with today’s higher education.

Many if not most professors and higher education leaders enjoy pontificating about their high-minded ideals in contrast with the grubby, self-interested world outside of academia. What few people have done is to turn the lens around and ask about the morals of those professors and leaders. Are they in fact paragons of virtue, or could it be that their own actions are suffused not with concern for students or society, but their own welfare?

In their recent book Cracks in the Ivory Tower, authors Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness explore those questions and find higher education to be “a moral mess.” …

… They don’t smear anyone, but merely point out that the system of incentives we have created in higher education inevitably leads to self-interested actions. They have nothing against self-interested action, but can’t stomach the way college leaders hide their pursuits behind a smokescreen of rhetoric about the social good.

The tools that the authors use throughout are insights into human behavior that economists (particularly those working in public choice theory) have developed: There are no free lunches; there are always budget constraints; incentives matter to people; actions usually have unintended consequences; people often break rules when they think they can; rules shape incentives; and good rules economize on virtue (i.e., we should create ones that align public interest with individuals’ private interests). Applying those insights, Brennan and Magness explain why American higher education costs as much as it does and delivers as little actual education as it does.