Nothing Laughable about Student Aid Mess

Over at The Huffington Post, Anya Kamenetz belittles a recent op-ed I had on Fox News about higher education. “Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute got Fox News.com to print a laughable retort to the Page One USA Today story last week on student debt,” Kamenetz writes. 

Actually, my laughable retort to USA Today’s article was in a letter that the newspaper printed last week. The Fox News piece was more of a laughable response to several higher education myths, though that included assertions like the one in USA Today that student aid is shrinking. Happily, Ms. Kamenetz’s piece offers an opportunity to do a little more hilarious misinformation busting.

First, while agreeing that the figures I cite in my Fox News piece are accurate – aid per-student aid really has been growing, including grant aid that students don’t have to pay back – Kamenetz responds that the maximum Pell Grant hasn’t risen since 2003, as if that somehow shows that my conclusions about overall aid are actually wrong.

Unfortunately, this is the standard response from people who want to see an endless flow of taxpayer dollars poured into students’ pockets. Of course, it makes no sense. It’s like saying that even though per-person steak consumption increased between 1996 and 2006, and people added a whole lot of new items to their diets in addition to steak, more people are starving today than 10 years ago because steak eating recently stagnated.

Having played the Pell Grant gambit, Kamenetz next asserts that on a per-student basis, state support for higher education is at a 25-year low, part of a trend that has led to increasing tuition costs. She cites a report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers to substantiate her claim, a report that does indeed show that in 2005 the average, inflation-adjusted, per-student public expenditure on higher education was $5,825, the smallest amount in 25 years. Of course, she neglects to mention another little tidbit in the report: In 2001, public expenditures per-student actually reached their highest point in 25 years, hitting $7,124!

What intervened between 2001 and 2005? Oh yes, a recession, which reduced tax receipts and forced states to cut spending, a process made more painful by the fact that many states spent wildly on higher education during the boom years. Even the most college-friendly states, apparently, couldn’t keep giving away taxpayer money that they didn’t have.

Finally, Ms. Kamenetz asserts that “what really makes me laugh is the argument that since the federal government is already spending a hell of a lot of money on this problem, that means the problem is not really a problem at all.” She then offers a deal: “let’s shake hands and agree that throwing more taxpayer dollars away is not going to get at the root causes of this mess.”

I agree that more taxpayer dollars won’t fix the college cost problem, but Ms. Kamenetz misses the main point: Not only won’t throwing more taxpayer dollars get at the problem’s root cause, it IS the root cause. As I wrote in my letter to USA Today, “clearly, aid is not shrinking. Indeed, that’s the problem: Like everyone else, colleges want as much money as they can get and will raise their prices if they think someone will pay them. All this aid ensures that someone will.”

It’s really fairly simple: As long as government is willing to increase student aid, colleges will inflate their prices to capture it. Moreover, as long as states continue to subsidize public postsecondary institutions with taxpayer dollars, we will see public colleges and universities waste massive amounts of money. Finally, as long as those subsidies continue, we will keep seeing tuition at public colleges and universities buffeted by the boom-and-bust cycle that governs most state budgets.

Frankly, there’s nothing laughable about any of the consequences of funneling more and more taxpayer dollars into the ivory tower, whether in the form of student aid or state subsidies. Hopefully, students and their advocates will soon come to realize that, end their constant demands for free higher education, and stop snickering about what they’re doing to taxpayers.