Commentary

The Sky Is Not Falling!

John Kerry picked a bad day to proclaim the sky was falling. At almost the same time he was declaring that higher education is getting increasingly out of reach for too many Americans, and unveiling his multi-billion dollar plan to change that, reports were breaking out all over: Record numbers of people are already improving their education, and doing so has never been easier.

“Workers in Illinois aren’t just competing against workers in Michigan or Ohio; they’re competing against workers in India and Indonesia,” Kerry said in a press release issued on June 29, the morning he unveiled his plan in Chicago. “If America wants to win, if we want to succeed in the 21st century marketplace, our workers need a 21st century education.” But, Kerry warns in the outline of his plan: “Today, too few U.S. students are enrolling in and completing college and too few American workers are receiving the training and education they need to compete for higher-wage and higher-skilled jobs.”

One of the biggest obstacles standing between Americans and the education they need, according to Kerry, are astronomical college costs: “A college degree is critical to success in today’s economy, but today, college is becoming less affordable: incomes are shrinking while tuition has risen by a record 35% over the last three years.” To deal with this, Kerry would provide $10 billion for states that keep college tuition down, as well as smaller programs to encourage women and minorities to study math and science and to improve college completion rates. All of which might be worthwhile, but for one thing: not only isn’t the sky falling, it’s rising, and two reports proving it were released at almost the same time Kerry was issuing his warning.

The first came out the day before Kerry’s Chicago speech, when USA Today published the results of a college affordability analysis it had conducted using data from the College Board, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Internal Revenue Service. The findings - at least if one were to listen to Kerry, or the rhetoric that has surrounded the on-going reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act - were shocking: “Contrary to the widespread perception that tuition is soaring out of control,” the newspaper revealed, “what students actually pay in tuition and fees — rather than the published tuition price — has declined for a vast majority of students attending four-year public universities. In fact, today’s students have enjoyed the greatest improvement in college affordability since the GI bill…”

But wait, there’s more. The day after USA Today published its news, further evidence of college affordability became public, this time from the U.S. Census Bureau. “The population of the United States is becoming more educated,” starts the Bureau’s report, Educational Attainment in the United States: 2003, which declares that though large gaps still exist between different groups, “the educational attainment of young adults (25 to 29 years), which provides a glimpse of our country’s future, indicates dramatic improvement by groups who have historically been less educated.” Indeed, the Census Bureau found that nationwide over 27 percent of adults possessed at least a bachelor’s degree — a record high.

Despite the timely the release of the USA Today and Census Bureau reports, there’s little reason to believe that Kerry’s doom and gloom message — or similar themes we’ve heard for years from politicians of all stripes — will disappear. For one thing, whenever there’s a choice between good news and bad, the media seem to pick bad every time. That’s why newspaper headlines like “Private college tuition soars” in the June 28 Des Moines Register, and “Tuition hikes add to the grind: College costs soaring every year as students scramble to help pay the bills” in the same day’s Cincinnati Enquirer, continue to be commonplace, despite recent reports from the Congressional Budget Office and the National Center for Education Statistics, as well as USA Today and the Census Bureau, having shown that higher education is readily accessible.

The other reason Kerry will, in all likelihood, continue to put forward his dreary message about college accessibility is that he knows that the myth of insurmountable college costs, and a promise by politicians “to do something about it,” has galvanized frightened students and parents in the past. But we should be wary of such a message, recalling that those creatures who heeded Chicken Little’s infamous warning were led not to safety, but to the den of a hungry fox. In this case, of course, the fox won’t eat us — he’ll just eat our money.

Neal McCluskey is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute.