On August 22, the White House released President Obama plan to make college more affordable. It began with the usual boilerplate of the importance of “investing” in a college education and noted that the cost of college had soared 250% over the last 30 years, far outstripping inflation. To reduce costs, Obama proposed a medley of government initiatives, none of which will succeed; rather, shock of shock, all will further bloat an already oversized bureaucratic colossus. Nor will anything of educational value be created. But that said, this ill-fated initiative is still important, since it offers valuable insights into how Obama and his ideological kin understand cost-cutting. In a nutshell, the entire enterprise is Orwellian — war is peace, and freedom is slavery.
Those familiar with business know about cost cutting — slash payrolls, sell off unprofitable divisions, out-source tasks, automate, hire part-timers, and so on. Hardly rocket science. Indeed, thanks to ObamaCare and countless odious regulations, President Obama’s administration has expertly facilitated corporate downsizing, so the Obama people should know the drill.
But matters dramatically differ when putting college tuition on a diet.
Begin with the obvious. A cardinal political rule is that thou shall not harm one vital constituency, and it is hard to think of a more loyal, energetic, and financially generous Democratic constituency than today’s campus. These loyal voters will never be given pink slips, at least not by a Democratic president.
Less obvious, but ultimately of greater importance, today’s universities, with scant exception, are vital to the long-term ideological health of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. If colleges are slimmed down, who will teach the next generation about “social justice” or the evils of the white male patriarchy? Imagine the ideological catastrophe if millions of students became well-paid plumbers versus reading Howard Zinn in in History 101. The president is right: sending nearly everybody to college is critical to America’s future, albeit the progressive-flavored future envisioned by Obama.
Obama’s plan is a dog’s breakfast of expensive foolishness. The Department of Education will now devise a rating system of colleges so parents will now know the “best value” for their children. A truly embarrassing idea. For one, numerous college guides already exist — colleges themselves provide ample relevant information (plus information from accrediting bodies) — but how many parents, especially among the less well-educated, can wade through a tome rating hundreds of very different schools?
Moreover, I’d guess that writing this guide will require at least a decade, plus several million in expenses, and given the inherent murkiness of “best value,” the final results will reflect political pressure, not some Platonic ideal. The tip-off to this upcoming manipulation is that the guide’s construction will require public hearings around the country that include parents, students, state leaders, college presidents, and “others,” a process that virtually guarantees domination by well-organized prestigious education lobbies.
And can Washington’s bureaucrats substitute for millions of parents in calibrating a “best buy”? Have Washington officials heard about free markets uncovering what millions value? This is government bureaucratic bloat waiting to happen — armies of data-collectors, report-writers, information-verifiers, and counselors to advise confused parents. And rest assured: nobody will be happy with the final product.
Now, to compound the foolishness, the Obama administration will encourage awarding federal college assistance to students choosing these “best value” institutions. No matter that “best value” is decided by Washington-imposed criteria, not parents or students, and no matter that today’s colleges can easily game the system (imagine verifying data from 4,000 colleges!). Can universities really (and honestly) discover whether their graduates are “successful” five years post-graduation? And according to whose definition of “successful”? What about billionaire dropouts like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Larry Ellison? And I defy anyone to devise a Bureau of Standards-like measure of “graduation rate,” since students who transfer before graduation do receive a BA, but not where they started. Meanwhile, others drop out and then return years hence. The only guarantee here is more university administrators, so, again, reduced tuition means more college spending.
And as part of this new affordability, Washington will set aside $1 billion to reward states that demand better performances from their colleges.
Meanwhile, universities will be encouraged to admit and graduate low- and moderate-income students and will be paid bonuses to do so. Translation: recruit even marginal students if they are poor and grease the path to graduation by awarding credit for remedial classes and life experiences, inflate grades, and create special dumbed down majors catering to those unable to otherwise survive — i.e., stealth affirmative action. But, on the downside, these students will soak up university resources and thereby raise tuition. A far better path to lowering tuition would be to recruit rich kids (or Saudi princes) who pay full list price and then shake down their parents for donations.
Further, add federal assistance (initial cost of $260 million) to help college develop cutting-edge programs “that work” along with unspecified regulatory changes to encourage low-cost high-tech solutions to reduce tuition. The president’s plan also includes a “pay as you earn” initiative capping loan repayment at 10% of monthly post-college income (and, of course, someone — perhaps the IRS — will have to check on purported income).
Taken as a whole, Obama’s plan only guarantees more federal red tape and more intrusion into areas historically reserved to individuals and state government, plus untold billions more in federal spending (and thus more national debt). In Orwellian terms, we must spend more to save money while added red tape means “investing in the future.” That a booming economy will outshine thousands of fuzzy guidelines to make college more affordable never seems to have occurred to these Washington education experts. Nor have Obama’s advisors heard about supply and demand — university competition for a shrinking supply of students means price cuts, while sending everyone to college via cheap loans brings excessive demand and then rising prices.
Ironically, a straightforward, easy to implement solution exists for to out-of-control tuition costs. It’s called Obama’s worst nightmare (OWN) — unemployment for his most ardent supporters. Just rid colleges of all their non-educational and over-priced frills (e.g., school-supplied housing, “free” health care, student activity fees) and then abolish all social engineering: programs promoting inclusion and diversity, seminars in multiculturalism, over-staffed Admission Offices responsible for circumventing bans on racial preferences by uncovering “hidden” talents, plus all the remedial courses need to help students permanently intellectually unsuited for college. And while we’re at it, cut those budget-draining empty-calorie programs, like gender studies and black studies, whose education value satisfies only egalitarian bean-counters. In other words, make higher education higher education.
Needless to say, this approach to cutting costs by restoring the university’s core mission is off-limits, regardless of the benefits bestowed on the poor. Far better to protect the paychecks of Democratic loyalists while aggrandizing Washington’s power. Even more depressing, outside a few quibbles over technical details (see here, for example), nobody seems alarmed at this bizarre war-is-peace Orwellian cosmology. It is just assumed that more bureaucracy, more red tape, and more spending equals reduced costs. In fact, the president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities put it this way: “I am very pleased to see President Obama continue his commitment to strengthening our higher-education system to help ensure that students and families get the best value for their tuition dollars.”