That Old College Lie
Are our colleges teaching students well? No. But here’s how to make them.
The president’s proposal to transfer more than $40 billion in banking industry subsidies to Pell Grants is a great idea. But nothing in the current Obama plan will prevent colleges from continuing to jack up tuition at double the inflation rate or more–in fact, the increase in consumer purchasing power will encourage them to. Unless something changes, by 2020 that $40 billion will be swallowed up by the appetites of a higher education system that has demonstrated no limits on how much money it is willing to ingest and spend.
The spectacle of an industry stuck on a steep and ascending trajectory of price increases, laxly regulated and fueled by debt, should be sobering and familiar. The real estate market collapsed and almost took the global economy down with it. It’s not too late to avoid a similar catastrophe in higher education. But it will take a decisive change of attitude among those who have historically been higher education’s biggest defenders.
Progressives should start by acknowledging that higher education is not a perfect land of opportunity best left to its own devices, unobserved. If progressives really care about higher education, if they’re truly committed to getting the most vulnerable students not just in the door to college but out the other side in one piece, they’ll be the first to insist that higher education reveal far more information about its successes and failures.
If they do, the benefits will be enormous. The market for higher education will start functioning properly, giving institutions strong incentives to care more about teaching and learning and a new ability to compete with one another on value and price. Students and parents will have a much greater ability to find colleges with a demonstrated track record of helping others like them learn and thrive in their lives and careers. Policymakers will be better able to judge which colleges are truly providing a return on the public dollar. Colleges with a mission to serve the disadvantaged will finally be able to demonstrate their full worth to the world.
There’s no time to waste in pushing for more and better higher education information. Without it, the coming decades will be much like the last: higher prices, diminished opportunities, the slow marginalization of higher education as a whole. Until this problem is solved, all the good works of people like Claiborne Pell will come to naught.
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