Yesterday Time Magazine published articles by President Obama and Governor Romney on their higher education policies. Both paint a rosy view of a college degree but offer few specifics on how to best facilitate it. Obama speaks highly of his college days, acknowledging that “Michelle and I are who we are only because of the chances our education gave us.” Similarly, Romney lauded America’s universities for “promoting inquiry, inspiring creativity, and ultimately preparing our citizens for success.” They both seem to believe that if we could hand out enough degrees to enough people at a low enough cost, our country would be in great shape.
Missing, of course, is the much greater importance of individual student effort, ambition, drive, and keen insight, all of which play an exponentially larger role personal success than does the possession of a diploma. Increasing college education access is not a panacea for all societal harms. Colleges provide specialized training and education for a select group of the population, and that’s okay. Sending everyone to college deprives opportunities for trade schools and other forms of education, and given that we have 115,000 college-degreed janitors, it’s probably safe to say that we already have plenty of people going to college.
Both candidates wish to lower the cost of education, though by different methods. Obama promises to increase federal student aid, proudly proclaiming that “we stopped student-loan interest rates from doubling” and “gave nearly 4 million more young people scholarships to help them afford their degree.” This ignores the strong evidence of the Bennett Hypothesis, which indicates that increasing federal aid actually drives up the cost of college by incentivizing colleges to charge higher tuition in a quest to capture that federal money.
Romney’s plan, to his credit, follows the logic of the Bennett Hypothesis; in the Time piece he writes that “endless government support only fuels skyrocketing tuition.” But unfortunately Romney’s proposed solution is wishy-washy. He prefers private loans to government-subsidized student loans but gives no specifics on how to scale back government involvement. And while he hopes to tackle the drop-out problem, he offers nothing but a promise to give potential drop-outs more “support.”
Most disappointing in both pieces is the politicization of education. Obama ends his piece with a plea for political support. “I’m not only asking for your help. I’m asking for your vote,” he instructs his readers. Even Romney’s piece, while steering clear of obvious references to election day, interrupts his policy explanation to complain that President Obama reneged on his higher education promises.
If we want real higher ed reform that scales back government subsidies and encourages alternative forms of education instead of funneling everyone through universities, we’ll have to look elsewhere.
Rachelle DeJong is a senior at The King’s College.