We have clearly oversold higher education. Through subsidies and political hype, we have prodded huge numbers of students to flock into colleges and universities. Naturally, those institutions also expanded in number and in the volume of students.
Now that it is becoming evident that a college degree isn’t necessarily a good investment and for many is a terrible waste of time and money, many schools are struggling, causing Washington Post writer Jeffrey Selingo to write a July 20 column, “How many colleges and universities do we really need?”
Selingo correctly observes, “At too many colleges attended by the vast majority of American students, costs are spiraling out of control and quality is declining.”
That’s right. As we’ve poured more and more government money into college “access,” schools have pocketed much of the money and gone on a spending spree – and then increased their tuition and fees, leading politicians to cry that they must increase student aid more to keep higher education “affordable.”
And it’s true that quality has declined. A high percentage of today’s students (*far higher than, say 40 years ago) are academically weak and disengaged. To accommodate such students, most schools have lowered their academic standards and allowed the curriculum to degenerate into a hodge-podge of trendy, often frivolous courses.
I agree with Selingo’s diagnosis, but not his proposed cure. He writes, “What we need is a federal commission similar to those that have been tasked with closing military bases over the years. In the case of higher education, this commission wouldn’t just recommend colleges for closure, but it also could identify where mergers or alliances could produce the best solution for clusters of struggling institutions.”
That is a bad idea. Federal political meddling is the very reason why we have the problems we do. Looking to still more of it to solve those problems is extremely naïve.
The main problem is that the analogy to closing military bases is a poor one. We had quite a few bases that were unnecessary. But while quite a few public colleges and universities suffer from low graduation rates and job placement overall, it is often the case that some parts of those schools are worthwhile. A college’s English major might be a joke but its biology major academically solid. Swinging a political – and a federal commission will certainly be highly political – is apt to chop away the good with the bad.
Selingo does suggest that the commission doesn’t just have to close schools, but could also recommend mergers and alliances. Fine, but school administrators can and have been doing that. Why expect better results from appointed commissioners than from school officials who have more direct knowledge and stronger incentives to make good decisions?
Instead of a top-down solution, we need a bottom-up solution. We’ll continue to have enormous waste and inefficiency as long as the federal faucet keeps pouring easy money into higher education. Shut off the faucet and then the invisible hand of market competition will get busy.
The weakest students will stop enrolling without the subsidies. When they stop showing up, administrators will have to prune away the worst majors and departments that cannot be sustained. Cost-saving mergers and alliances will be more avidly explored, but administrators who are best positioned to assess the pros and cons.
A doctor knows to always look for the root cause of an ailment and to deal with it – not just ameliorate the symptoms. With higher education in America, the root cause is the fact that easy money has terribly distorted the decisions of both students and school officials. We must deal with that.