Are We Reading the Same Report?

I have to disagree with Arnold Kling’s surprisingly upbeat assessment of the draft report from the Secretary of Education’s higher education commission. While some of the recommendations he likes may be tolerable in an ideal world, it’s critical to remember that we’re talking about politics here.

First, Arnold applauds the report’s call for colleges to improve data collection on student persistence in order to help inform prospective students and parents. That’s fine, and I would encourage consumers to avoid schools that wouldn’t furnish such information. Unfortunately, it’s not supply and demand that the report says should make schools publish the data. It’s government:

Federal and state policy should focus on improving persistence and sealing the leaks in the educational pipeline at all levels: K-12, post-secondary and workforce education. Colleges should be held accountable for the success of the students they admit. Improved collection of data on student persistence will allow consumers of higher education to evaluate institutional success and identify best practices.

What a terrific tool for government control! Once they collect persistence data, opportunistic politicians can declare that schools must graduate very large percentages of their students in order to receive government funds. If grade inflation seems bad now…

Next, Arnold blesses the report’s recommendation that states and schools “review and revise” their credit transfer policies. Again, this is a fine thing for consumers to require, but if government mandates it, credit transfer policies will end up being based on political calculations, not academic merits.

The same problem applies to Arnold’s next point, in which he supports reorienting student aid from “broad-based” to “need-based.” That sounds good at first, but the reality is that in order to build enough political support to give more aid to the “needy,” politicians will define “needy” to include almost everyone. Just look at the current system, which directs oodles of cash to aid programs in the name of the poor, yet somehow always ends up putting a bunch of it in the hands of upper-middle-class kids.

Finally, Arnold approves of the recommendation that all 50 states encourage “the collection of data allowing meaningful interstate comparison of student learning.”

Now, I’m not so sure I want state governments encouraging colleges to implement standards and testing regimes, which is what this would ultimately require. I’m positive, though, that I don’t want the feds doing it, because federal “encouragement” invariably leads to federal “control.” Just look at elementary and secondary education, where the No Child Left Behind Act has given Washington unprecedented control over local schools.

Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, say hello to NCLB:

The federal government should provide incentives for states, higher education associations, systems, and institutions to develop outcomes-focused accountability systems designed to be accessible and useful for students, policy makers, and the public….

In the end, like Arnold, I encourage people to read the Commission’s draft report for themselves and reach their own conclusions. As far as I’m concerned, though, one recommendation alone completely sums up the report’s frightening, command-economy thrust:

The Secretary of Education should take the lead in developing a national strategy to keep the U.S. at the forefront of the knowledge revolution, creating a system that encourages knowledge and skills to be obtained and continuously updated on a regular basis through a lifetime of learning.

I don’t know about anyone else, but that sounds like a bad thing to me.