Blueprint for an Ivory Tower Disaster

Late Monday, the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education – a group tasked with creating a “national strategy” for post-secondary schooling – released a preliminary draft of its findings and recommendations. Thankfully, it is just a draft, because almost everything it calls for – from marked increases in student aid, to more government-imposed “accountability”– would devastate American higher education.

American academia’s biggest problem is that thanks to government aid to both students and institutions it is financed largely by taxpayers rather than the students it is educating. This “third-party payer problem” has led to huge waste, as the draft report acknowledges:

In our view, affordability is directly affected by the failure of post-secondary institutions to take aggressive steps to improve institutional efficiency and productivity. That…can be traced to a system of third-party payments…that gives college and universities little incentive to control costs and find innovative ways to teach students. On the contrary, for many institutions the path to prestige involves spending more money, whether on costly laboratories or lavish student dorms, an academic arms race that often doesn’t serve the public interest.

Having apparently understood the third-party payer problem, you would think the commission would call for the obvious – eliminating government interference in higher education. You would be wrong. In fact, the report’s very first recommendation is for the nation (read: “government”) to “commit to an unprecedented effort to expand access to college by providing substantial increases in need-based aid…”

Of course, expanding student aid isn’t the report’s only recommendation. It also calls for new “Lifelong Learning Accounts” to be financed through tax incentives; federal enticements for states and higher education organizations to implement standardized testing schemes; a new “national student unit record tracking system” that would include data on almost every college student in the country; and a “national accreditation framework” that the federal government could use to impose uniformity on the ivory tower.

All of these big-government recommendations are supposed to help us compete in the global economy, which is ironic given the performances of our competitors’ very centralized systems of higher education. In the late 1990s, for instance, China’s economic planners offered huge incentives for young people to go to college. Today, roughly 60 percent of recent Chinese college graduates are struggling to find jobs. Or look at Europe: According to the Centre for European Reform, that continent’s colleges and universities “are failing to provide the intellectual and creative energy that is required to improve the continent’s poor economic performance.”

Clearly, to keep itself and the country competitive, the last thing American higher education needs is more government money or control. Unfortunately, the Secretary of Education’s Commission seems poised to recommend a lot more of both.