Compel government to address high tuition
VOICE OF REASON
Published: Monday, March 26, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, March 27, 2012 13:03
Brandeis isn’t worth the money. In fact, most universities aren’t worth the money. College students and their families often will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for four years of education. This cost is a significant burden on many of our parents, and far too many of us will be strapped with tens of thousands of dollars of debt before we even land our first jobs.Many causes have brought about skyrocketing rates that outpace inflation. One of these causes has undoubtedly been the federal and state governments’ policies that encourage higher education over the past several decades.
Two prominent center-right intellectuals, Reihan Salam and Vance Fried, recently noted in an article for National Review that the federal government has spent years pumping ever-increasing sums of money into the higher education sector, with ever-fewer results to show for it. In the ten years after the end of the Clinton administration, the federal government increased the amount it spent funding higher education by over 100 billion dollars. Yet this increased spending has done virtually nothing to slow the increase in the cost of higher education. Why hasn’t the smorgasbord of government grants and loans given to students and universities managed to lower college costs? Salam and Fried propose several reasons for this counterintuitive outcome.
One reason is that universities have almost no incentive to control their costs. New sources of revenue are not seen as a way to defray other costs, but as a justification for more expenditures. The increasing expenditure is then used as a justification to seek more revenue in a vicious circle of sorts.
Another cause Salam and Fried identify is the power of regional accreditation boards to determine which colleges are eligible for government funds. These boards often create cumbersome obstacles that prevent the creation of new schools with innovative, and potentially more cost-effective, education models that could compete with existing institutions. So what is to be done? Salam and Fried propose several reforms that deserve serious consideration. The first may seem a bit draconian, but it is ultimately right-headed: Gradually reduce the amount of money the federal government provides in low-interest loans.
While it may seem at first glance that such a policy will simply hurt students, many of whom will no longer be able to afford college tuition, there are two distinct reasons for such a policy. The first is that default rates on federal loans have risen considerably over the past years. Gradually reducing the size of the federal loan program will encourage more caution and cost-consciousness among students and their families, and prevent them from making what may ultimately be a poor long-term investment.
Another benefit of this policy is that it will bring cost-containment to an industry where virtually none exists. If potential college students become more cost-conscious, if they are forced to look for bargains when it comes to their educations, then colleges and universities will respond accordingly. They will develop new management and educational models that are more cost-effective.
A second promising reform would be decreasing the power of regional accreditation boards. If state governments develop alternative routes to accreditation, and thus access to state funding, that will bring more variety and competition to the higher education industry, leading to better results at a more manageable cost. Finally, a promising reform not mentioned by Salam and Fried, but recently put forward by President Barack Obama in his most recent State of the Union address, is making universities’ receipt of federal funds conditional on their ability to control costs. Just as more elastic consumer demand brought about by fewer federal loans and a greater variety of schools can enforce cost controls, so can a reasonable amount of government strong-arming through the power of the purse.
The government has been involved in the field of higher education for well over half a century; the skyrocketing cost of a college education is, to some extent, the government’s problem. If meaningful reform of this sector of our society is to be accomplished, we college students must play a role in bringing that change about. In a country where every interest group, for better or worse, speaks out forcefully for reforms and positions that are important to its community, we, the youth vote, ought to make higher education reform the national issue it deserves to be.