Tag: university

Our Little Scholars

As I mentioned a few days ago, today is the “Day of Action” in California – and, it turns out, elsewhere – when college students and just general protectors of public schooling are supposed to take to the streets and demand that taxpayers fork over not one less red cent to students and schools.

Ironically, the mindless, property-destroying, absurd goings-on that have surrounded past such demonstrations in Cali – and are already in evidence today – brilliantly illustrate one major reason we need to cut higher education subsidies, not increase them. Clearly, too many college students have both far too much time on their hands, and far too little self control, to justify spending hard-earned taxpayer dough on their “education.”

But at least the ostensible motivation behind recreational rioting in California has been slightly related to a principle – namely, the principle that taxpayers owe students stuff. That’s actually a better excuse for taking to the streets than what set off last night’s student riots in College Park, Maryland: a victory in a basketball game. (To be fair, University of Maryland students also riot after losses – they’re no fair weather fans!)

And to think – one of the reasons we’re supposed to support massive subsidies for students is that it serves the common good. Go figure.

Nothing Good about The Higher Ed Pricing Game

On Tuesday I noted that the College Board had released its annual reports on college prices and student aid. At the time I wrote the post I hadn’t yet been able to download the reports, but was planning to provide a rundown of their major findings once I’d read them. I’ve now done the latter, but it turns out that Ben Miller over at the Quick and the ED has already posted a pretty good summary of the most important findings. Go there if you want the highlights. Don’t go there, though, if you want to know what the highlights mean, at least for anyone other than students. For that, you’ll have to read on here….

The big news is that net college prices – what students pay after aid– have actually decreased over the last 15 years. While sticker prices were rising much faster than incomes and inflation, what students were actually paying dropped. The implication of this is so obvious that Mr. Magoo couldn’t mistake it: Student aid, much of which comes through taxpayers, enables schools to charge ever-higher prices with near impunity.

Back to the Quick and the ED. To some degree, Miller sees declining net price as a triumph for federal aid, making college more affordable even as prices explode:

This story should be encouraging for legislators that fought hard to win Pell Grant increases over the last few years. The steepest decreases in net price occur beginning in the 2007-2008 academic year, the same time Congress began passing legislation that boosted the maximum Pell Grant award several times. This at least suggests that the money spent on the program did play some role in lessening the financial burden for students and was not completely eaten up by sticker price increases.

On the flip side, Miller at least acknowledges that:

The net price figure also lessens the pressure on schools to actually take proactive steps to lower their costs. If the price you list isn’t actually what you charge, then why should anyone care what the listed price is and how high it gets? Net price thus serves as a kind of smokescreen that gets colleges at least partially off fo[r] charging an arm and a leg.

So what’s wrong with this analysis? 

Most important is that Miller softpedals the aid effect, suggesting that the main negative consequence of  ever-increasing assistance is that it bleeds off a bit of the pressure for schools to lower costs. But it likely has a much more destructive effect than that, not just curbing efficiency pressures, but enabling schools to constantly charge and spend more.  It’s a likelihood that student-aid defenders try to dispel by citing studies that cover very short periods of time, or that simply pronounce that we don’t know that it happens. That it probably happens, however, has been borne out empirically, and it’s readily ackowledged by prominent higher educators including former Harvard president Derek Bok, former Stanford vice president William F. Massy, and former University of Iowa president Howard Bowen. Indeed, the latter’s “law” couldn’t be more blunt: “Universities will raise all the money they can and spend all the money they raise.”

Miller’s other major failing is that he completely ignores that all this aid has to come from somwhere, and that “somewhere” is largely taxpayers. (OK, first it’s China.) Just to give you a sense of the impact on taxpayers, College Board data show that between the 1998-99 and 2008-09 academic years, total federal aid – including grant money recipients don’t have to pay back, and loans they (sometimes) do – rose from $61.1 billion to $116.8 billion. Add state aid to that, and the total goes from $66.6 billion to $126.2 billion.

And what are some of the major downsides of these forced third-party payments? Miller mentions a few pricing difficulties for students, but makes no mention of the potentially huge negative consequences for the nation: Encouraging lots of people to attend college who simply aren’t prepared for it; cranking out many more degrees than the job market demands; and potentially slowing economic growth by taking funds from productive uses and giving it to efficiency-averse colleges and students. 

The big finding in the latest College Board data, which the Quick and the ED nails, is that net college prices have been going down. The important story, however, is that this is bad news for the country. Unfortunately, the Quick and the Ed misses that almost completely.

A Look Inside the Ivory Tower Spiral

With the Obama Administration promising to ramp up all sorts of college-affordability (read: government expenditure) efforts in the coming months, now is a crucial time for Americans to understand why our colleges and universities ingest money as bottomlessly as their students guzzle beer. With that in mind, the release of a new report from the John William Pope Center is perfectly timed. The Revenue-to-Cost Spiral in Higher Education explains how colleges’ internal arrangements render them almost destined to spend every dime they bring in, no matter how wastefully. The basic problem, argues author and economist Robert E. Martin, is that very few colleges and universities are intended to make a profit – which would give “owners” a powerful incentive to maximize efficiency – and no one really seems to be in charge at most schools.

Of course, this is a serious over-simplification of Martin’s argument, so you’ll have to read the report. But don’t just stop there: A few weeks ago the Pope Center held a colloquium right here at Cato to discuss the report, and Pope Senior Writer Jay Schalin just posted an excellent summary of the back-and-forth between participants. I think you’ll find the points about the third-party-payer problem especially powerful, but there are lots of other good arguments highlighted as well.

Federal University

There is no official word on this yet, but according to Inside Higher Ed the Obama Administration is putting the finishing touches on a proposed “National Skills College” that will include federally designed – and owned – courses:

The funds envisioned for open courses – $50 million a year – may be small in comparison to the other ideas being discussed. But in proposing that the federal government pay for (and own) courses that would be free for all, as well as setting up a system to assess learning in those courses, and creating a “National Skills College” to coordinate these efforts, the plan could be significant far beyond its dollars.

Darn right it could be significant! Washington would for all intents and purposes be on the way to creating a federal university, and not one like the service academies that is constitutionally justifiable under federal defense powers. No, this one would be completely and utterly unconstitutional, and would unfairly compete with lots effective private – including for-profit – institutions. And, of course, there’s the little matter of how this would be paid for.

I’ll have more on this as details become available.