The Department of Education Needs to Die

As stated previously, if I were dictator for a day, I would empty the Maryland Avenue headquarters of the U.S. Department of Education (ED), have the Air Force bomb it out of existence, and after the Corps of Engineers removed the rubble, I would give the land to the Smithsonian Institution for an expansion of its popular Air and Space Museum, financed from appropriations from the now eliminated ED. Dream on.

This came to mind as I read a December 22 Wall Street Journal page one headline: “Glitches, Red Tape Plague Return of Student-Loan Bills.” The ED can’t even send bills out properly, a problem arising largely because the Biden Administration simply does not believe students should have to repay loans, and delayed resumption of payments for years in a highly dubious interpretation of the rule of law.

The current brouhaha also centers around the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form that almost all students wanting outside help to pay for college must complete, even if they seek privately funded scholarships. The form has been about 130 questions long for decades, sufficiently complex to deter kids from low-income families with poorly educated parents from applying.

In 2019, Congress, in the FAFSA Simplification Act, compelled the ED to have a shortened form in operation for the 2024 school year, and, as usual, that hapless agency is precariously close to missing its deadline—and admission and financial aid offices of colleges are nearing panic. How much financial aid do we give high school senior Joanna Blow, who wants to attend college next fall, when we lack critical information about her family’s financial condition?

What makes this doubly scandalous is that the problem with the complicated FAFSA was acknowledged long before 2019. I attended a meeting at the ED Kremlin hosted by then Education Secretary Margaret Spellings—probably in 2007 or early 2008, about 16 years ago. I previously served as a member of the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which, in its 2006 final report, called for “replacing the FAFSA with a much shorter and simpler application.”

Some of us at the meeting called by Secretary Spellings, such as noted education researcher Susan Dynarski—now at Harvard—and myself asked: do we even need a FAFSA form? If student aid applicants could simply give the feds—and possibly college admission offices—the ability to access the income tax returns of applicants, why still have another federal form providing the same information? At the minimum, a postcard-length form providing information on income, family debt, and the number of other dependents attending college should suffice.

Although I had my differences with Secretary Spellings—along with George Leef; I even debated her and United Negro Campus Fund head Michael Lomax on a PBS prime time program on the desirability of everyone going to college—she appeared to want to solve the problem.

But the Maryland Avenue apparatchiks could or would not deliver.

Moreover, Biden-era changes already made or contemplated to the FAFSA form are quite wokeish. They will reward those whose contributions to society are problematic but punish those from traditional intact families with multiple children. Specifically, we now are letting incarcerated individuals receive financial aid to take college courses while in prison, but the new FAFSA form proposes to severely punish traditional nuclear families with two or more kids attending college at the same time.

According to the Wall Street Journal, an Iowa state government agency—Iowa College Aid—estimated the expected family contribution for farmer parents with two kids and a modest—$60,000—income, owning a farm worth $1 million—very modest for Iowa—would rise from $7,626 to $41,056. Sock it to those people from intact traditional families!

At a time when an aging nation desperately needs new blood, why are we penalizing those having more than one child?

America’s greatest strength in higher education comes from its competitiveness and diversity—we have had thousands of different institutions competing for students by offering widely varying educational options. The ED has lamentably worked to standardize the system. Simplifying FAFSA is not enough. Abolishing it would be useful. But far better would be to eliminate the ED. Before its creation in 1979, American universities were improving, and we were becoming the envy of the world. Since then, their leadership and distinctive character have increasingly become compromised.

 Photo by Bill Doss — Adobe Stock — Asset ID#: 130953513


  • Richard Vedder

    Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University, a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, and a board member of the National Association of Scholars.

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3 thoughts on “The Department of Education Needs to Die

  1. Deep breath….

    It’s not that I disagree with Dr. Vedder — I don’t – it’s just that these issues are way more complicated than he presents them as being.

    First and foremost, what Jimmy Carter did in 1979 was to split one Federal Department (Health, Education, & Welfare or HEW) into two — Health & Human Services (H&HS) and Education (ED). In other words, he elevated Education to its own Cabinet-level position.

    The Federal Education bureaucracy had already existed (at HEW) for decades — much of it having been created by Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” and some of it even earlier. For example, the NAEP (the “nation’s report card) and ERIC (a research clearinghouse) date back to the late 1960s and the GI Bill, which started Federal funding of higher education as we know it, was formally known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944.

    Yes, the Federal bureaucracy has been involved in higher education since 1944, some 35 years before ED was formally created — and that’s ignoring the Morrill Acts of the 19th Century which created the state land-grant colleges. Federal Student Financial Aid as we currently know it dates back to the 1965 Higher Ed Act, which was part of LBJ’s “Great Society” domestic agenda. Again, 14 years before ED was created.

    Margaret Spellings and Betsy DeVos are unsung heroes for their battles with the educrats, but these folks even defied Barack Obama. Seriously — Obama wanted to reign in some of the outrageous research overheads that universities charge the Federal government and he was unable to do this. It’s a tightly-knit coalition of bureaucrats, university administrators and special interest groups (including the teacher’s unions) and abolishing ED will accomplish nothing — in part because we are making the same mistakes with higher education that we made with public housing.

    While their roots were in the Depression, Public Housing Projects came of age during and after WW-II. Taxpayer-subsidized, they were modest apartments where everyone paid the same low rent, regardless of income or assets. They thus were mixed-income communities that were quite popular with young people saving for a down payment on a house. Things changed when the rules changed to rent being 30% of gross income — the middle-class families were forced out and the projects turned into the low-income ghettos that they are today.

    Prior to the Federal largess, the state colleges and universities were spartan, but affordable — UMass reportedly charged $50 a year, which would be $653.30 today. And the $50 was paid by the rich and the poor, as well as the middle class which today is being squeezed out of higher education. What changed was financial aid (particularly loans) being extended to the middle class — forty years ago, then Ed Secretary Bill Bennett warned that this would only serve to inflate college costs, and it did.

    It’s not just administrators, although that’s an issue — faculty pay increased while faculty teaching loads plummeted. We went from a professor teaching 8 classes a year in the 1960s to teaching 6 classes a year in the 1980s, to teaching 5 a year in the 1990s to now teaching 4 or less. One does not need to be an economist to realize that if your faculty are only teaching half the classes they once did, you are going to need twice as many faculty members to teach the same number of classes.

    So we come to the case of Joanna Blow whose parents earn the median household income for their state of Iowa* and have $1M in assets, which just happens to be the family farm. How much should her parents pay for her education, and what if they don’t want to?**

    In an earlier age, the answer would have been “State U costs $50/year, or figure out how to pay for a private university yourself.” But on a wealth basis, how do you equitably deal with a non-liquid asset that *is* worth a Million Dollars — Sleezey Sammy the land developer would pay that, in cash, for it tomorrow. But on the other hand, we want to promote family farms as a matter of public policy — and as Dr. Vedder points out, we desperately *need* children, particularly those coming from intact families.

    The FAF is as long as it is because it is a wealth assessment — and because it is a social policy shaping document. Middle-class Johanna Blow’s family is going to have to pay $41,056 for her education so that Charlie the Child Molester can get his for free — that *is* a social policy decision. As is how we treat the non-liquid assets of small businesses — farmer aren’t the only ones who run into this issue.

    Wouldn’t it be easier — and fairer — to say “the tuition is $653.30 for the year” and end it there? And don’t fall into the trap of believing that state funding being a smaller percentage of a vastly increased whole is a reduction in state funding — it isn’t…

    And what no one is asking is what happens when the Blow family decides that it doesn’t want to — or simply can’t — pay $41,056 for her education next fall? I wouldn’t, college simply ain’t worth it, and we are only two years away from the abyss — the children not born in 2008 won’t be turning 18 in 2026 and won’t be going to college in the Fall of 2026.

    So what happens then???

    Again, I don’t really disagree with Dr. Vedder, but bombing 400 Maryland Avenue will accomplish nothing. Now not re-authorizing the Higher Education Act and ending the Federal largess — that would…..

    *I’m giving them the extra $650/year to keep the math simple — and because I don’t know which counties in Iowa are farm counties….

    ** Ignored in all of this are the significant number of parents who simply refuse to contribute to their children’s educations.

    1. Thank you Dr. Ed, for a more fair and insightful explanation of the problem. I learned ten-fold from your reply than from the article itself!

      1. Thank you.

        I share Dr. Vedder’s frustrations but there is no simple solution to these problems.
        Even not re-authorizing the Higher Ed Act (as much as I’d love to see that) would be highly traumatic to the country — and would never pass Congress.

        The old joke about the B-1 Bomber was that it had parts built in every Congressional district and hence couldn’t be canceled. Higher Education is the same way….

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