In the first part, I described what deep socioeconomic consequences could result (and to some extent already have resulted) from greatly expanding government control over higher education. Tuition costs have vastly outpaced inflation. Everyone agrees on problems like these. So what can be done?
It’s important to realize that college is an investment, a product. Capitalism can make college both as valuable and accessible in general as the rest of our goods and services.
Firstly, there’s the basic argument against socializing any such thing: Allocating people’s money by force (via taxation) cannot increase economic output, only move it around, and at the same time is coercive–no matter how good the intentions. Rather, it’s best to leave it in the hands of its earners, because this way at least maximizes individual liberty.
Secondly, speaking of good intentions, the expansion of federal grants and loans for students is simply incentivizing universities to raise their tuition in kind. They’ve learned that they can get away with the hikes, again and again. Eliminating these programs would therefore return both tuition AND aid to their basest levels—except again, would have the added benefits of limited government.
I would take things a bit further.
The federal government has long held funding over the heads of every “independent” American college. After vowing to expel its ROTC program in protest of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” even mighty Harvard imploded like a house of cards once the feds promptly threatened to remove the university’s funding.
Hillsdale College succeeded where Harvard failed. Despite not accepting federal or state funding of any kind, Hillsdale has an endowment-per-student of approximately $215,000—one of the highest in the country, even among private liberal arts (“for-profit”) schools. Hillsdale, with a high graduate job-placement rate and notable academic rigor, is also one of only a few routinely top-100 ranked colleges with a total cost (tuition + room/board) of under $33K. The rest range mostly from $40K-$60K.
So how does Hillsdale (or its partner-in-crime, Grove City College) not only survive, but thrive from a lack of government funds?
The key is accountability. As mentioned, college is essentially a business, and therefore subject to the rules of capitalism. Tamper with these rules too much, and prices get distorted.
But severed from government funding, colleges would have to compete with each other for your precious dollars like any other business. Those that could not offer competitive tuition rates or scholarship packages to students and their families, would not have the government to prop them up. Please your customers, or perish.
Educational quality would improve as well. Universities would have to respond to market signals by investing more in programs that are tied to higher employment and more lucrative salaries in the workforce, while scrapping programs that are not (“B.S. majors,” as many refer to them, and I don’t mean “Bachelor of Science”). A homeless graduate, after all, is not a very grateful graduate.
That brings us to the next point. Besides tuition, colleges would rely on alumni and other donors for funding (more readily available, since taxes would be lower). God and Man at Yale, the 1951 book that brought a young William F. Buckley Jr. to fame, makes the case in spades: Are graduates even aware of what their alma mater teaches, or what it spends money on? Does their alma mater care about them, but for the donations for which it pesters them the rest of their lives? If an alma mater and her children are ideally one big family, who should have a say in the teachings of an institution but the former students themselves?
Without the proper leverage, Buckley was ultimately unable to rally his fellow Yalies to effect change in response to (in this case) the deep-seated Marxist and anti-religious ideology he experienced within the university, of which he proved even Yale’s oldest and wealthiest alumni donors to be woefully ignorant.
But eliminating federal funding would essentially empower alumni to the role of trustees. Cohesive networks of information could exist through more than just magazine mailings. Curricula could be set and monitored democratically. If administrative decisions are unpopular, the university would have its very livelihood to lose. And again, it wouldn’t have the government to keep it on life-support while it quite arrogantly ignores the educational and fiscal concerns of its former students young and old alike, fuming on the sidelines, shattered trust at their feet.
This is all wishful thinking, of course, as in the plunge to government dependence our society is too far-gone to respond to reason now. But if one thinks about it, it’s not that radical. I’m advocating essentially the same thing as progressives during this crisis: Lower costs and greater accountability from the university “fat-cats.” More opportunity with less fraud.
However, instead of bigger government and a mountain of unintended consequences, I’m suggesting the method that most empowers students, graduates, families, free enterprise, unbiased education–and at the same time, even the universities themselves to freely govern their own affairs. (Much like Hillsdale does.)
Only the politicians lose—but in this case, they lose some of the power to screw up our lives without comprehending it.
Take that to school.