It Wasn’t Hard to See Coming

Today the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education adopted its final report on reforming America’s ivory tower, and it’s just the sort of document one would expect from a commission stacked with higher education insiders. Indeed, I saw it coming months ago.

The report calls for substantially more taxpayer money to be spent on student aid, promoting “innovation,” and research. It also suggests throwing the doors open for a sweeping “partnership with states and federal agencies” to develop “a national strategy for lifelong learning,” and endorses the creation of a federal database populated with information on every college student in America, whether they receive public aid or not.

Perhaps the only areas where the report does not quite live up to my original expectations are in its sections on testing and “accountability.” It does urge schools to begin measuring student learning using standardized tests, and says the federal government should provide incentives for them to do so, but it stops short of saying outright, as I once feared, that the federal government should require such testing. What eventually put the kibosh on mandatory testing was that many higher education associations expressed big reservations about it, and the commission has tried very hard to please the ivory tower establishment.

Of course, the report’s recommendations are just the beginning. Next comes implementation, and politicians are likely to turn even the commission’s reasonable suggestions into bad policies. For instance, while the commission recommends focusing student aid more on the needy, policymakers are very unlikely to increase aid for the poor without also boosting it for wealthier people whose votes they need. The present student aid system demonstrates that reality perfectly.

Indeed, the corruption of the report’s few good recommendations began even before the document was approved. As I wrote yesterday, the draft which has now been adopted originally contained a passage suggesting that people consider – just consider – using more private loans. But that segment was removed when student advocacy groups protested against it, seemingly on the grounds that students should only get loans backed with money taken from taxpayers.

Which brings me to the ultimate point: No matter what kind of “common good” rhetoric it’s dressed up in, government policy primarily serves entrenched special interests, not the larger “American people.” That is why the only good recommendation this commission could have made would have been to get government out of the ivory tower, and why the recommendations it did make would do just the opposite.