Commentary

Higher Math

One-thousand-one-hundred-fifty-eight is a pretty big number, especially if you’re talking about pages you’ve got to read. To get your bearings, “War and Peace,” long the standard for overwhelming verbiage, weighs in at about 1,500 pages, while on the other side your average Harlequin romance novel is around 200 soapy pages. None of these figures, though, are close to this whopper — 452 billion.

So what’s any of this got to do with the price of tomatoes, as they say? Well, nothing, but it’s got a lot to do with the price of college and your taxes. On Tuesday night, a congressional conference committee passed legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA) that if enacted - and it seems it will be - will drive up both the price of college and your tax bill. But don’t bother trying to nitpick it; the legislation is 1,158 pages long and is expected to be voted on by the full House and Senate today. It is doubtful many members of Congress will read even a little of the bill before it’s given a final yea or nay.

And what’s the significance of 452 billion, you ask? In dollars, it’s the newly projected size of the federal deficit, a huge shortfall to which the new HEA will only be adding digits.

This bill would do nothing to rein in rampant tuition inflation, by far the biggest problem in higher education.”

Consider just some of the broad lowlights, which is all that are available given the bill’s sheer, mountainous size, and the time constraints under which it’s being rammed through Congress.

First and foremost, the new HEA would increase the Pell Grant maximum from $5,800 to $9,000, a 55 percent leap. If the same number of Pell recipients as we had in 2008 - almost 5.6 million - were to receive maximum benefits under the new bill, it would cost more than $50 billion. The chances of that happening aren’t huge - most Pell recipients don’t qualify for maximum awards, and Congress rarely appropriates full authorized amounts - but Pell outlays will almost certainly rise, and their potential is fiscally frightening.

Still in the direct-costs-to-taxpayers column, the bill would simplify the process for students to get federal aid, easing the way to government money for students who are so unmotivated they won’t even go through the current process to get college dough. There’s also a new loan fund for colleges damaged by natural disasters, and added cash for graduate programs serving large minority populations.

Next, we have new rules and regulations. Colleges will have to report a lot more information about what supposedly drives their costs and prices. The U.S. Department of Education will get new authority to regulate private loans, which use no taxpayer money and are, as a result, the only truly fair student aid because both lender and borrower voluntarily agree to terms. There’s even a requirement that colleges come up with plans to enable students to legally download music and movies.

And then there’s the real kicker: This bill would do nothing to rein in rampant tuition inflation, by far the biggest problem in higher education. Indeed, by giving students yet more taxpayer-furnished aid, it will just keep exacerbating the problem, heaping more cheap money on kids so that they can demand bigger hot tubs, more famous professors, and fancier dining-hall food.

Just look at the numbers: It’s no coincidence that while the inflation-adjusted price of college has gone up roughly 70 percent over the last two decades, aid per-student rose almost 140 percent. The more money students get from others, the more they’re willing to pay and the more universities are happy to charge.

Unfortunately, this all seems inconsequential in Washington. The conference committee passed its HEA monstrosity 40-4. The bill is expected to breeze through the House and Senate - if it can physically be squeezed through the doors - on its way to a presidential signature. It’s just another sign that numbers like 1,158 and $452 billion mean nothing in D.C. Vote counts are the only numbers that really matter.

Neal McCluskey is associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education.