November 3, 2011 4:43PM

The Light Don’t Shine on Higher Ed

I’m accustomed to a standard response when I propose removing government from some part of education: it’s not gonna happen, so forget about it. Often, a popular counter‐​proposal is then offered: Have government require “transparency” from schools, either of the k‐​12 or higher variety. Transparency, apprently, is something we can get.

Except, it seems, we almost never do.

A couple of weeks ago I provided numbers exposing the likely failure of transparency in elementary and secondary education. Today, in a surprising twist, someone else reveals transparency futility in higher ed: Education Sector’s Kevin Carey, in a joint report with AEI’s Andrew Kelly. It’s surprising because Carey is one of the people who has dismissed my arguments for removing government as unrealisitc, and instead championed transparency as an achievable solution. In light of this, all credit to him for publishing his study.

The paper, The Truth Behind Higher Education Disclosure Laws, is awfully clear: Transparency requirements in the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act have led to either rampant evasion or deception in reporting everything from Pell‐​recipient graduation rates to employment placement info. Indeed, the report says that “by creating an illusion of transparency and disclosure” the requirements are worse than having no reporting at all.

Sound familiar?

Based on what we know about transparency mandates in education, it seems at least as quixotic to expect regulations to work as to expect that we can begin to remove govenment funding. The reality is that regulations are often far too convoluted and endless for the regulated to comply with even a small fraction of them; they often stymie enforcement for the same reasons; and they are regularly ignored because those who would be regulated have a lot more political sway on their issues than the public.

Unfortunately, repeated failure doesn’t seem to deter those with an abiding faith in regulation, including Carey and Kelly, whose report largely recommends tougher rule enforcement. But go from regular push ups to those hand‐​clapping ones and you still won’t budge the Earth.

Or maybe I’m wrong (it’s theoretically possible). Maybe government actually can make colleges change for the better. Maybe it’s just that transparency isn’t the answer. Indeed, whether government can move colleges for the better will the subject of a terrific, full‐​day conference Cato will be hosting on November 18th with the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. Speakers will include CCAP founder and economist Richard Vedder; George Washington University President Emertius Stephen Joel Trachtenberg; Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein; and many more powerful analysts of the ivory tower. And the discussion, I assure you, won’t just be more regulation versus less taxpayer aid. There will be a wide variety of perspectives offered, and no doubt many surprising debates. I hope you’ll join us, and you can register here!