BIG BROTHER GOES TO COLLEGE

The writing’s on the wall. In the not-too-distant future, the federal government will become a conspicuous presence on college campuses, both virtual and physical.

I’ve been expecting this for a long time. Now that Obamacare is law, it makes perfect sense that the president would turn to higher education reform. After all, the “problems” plaguing the health care and education are strikingly similar: prices are rising rapidly and accessibility is restricted.

According to a White House press release dated January 27, 2012, “In today’s global economy, a college education is no longer just a privilege for some, but rather a prerequisite for all.” Well, I’m as much a fan of education as the President, but I have to take issue with him on this one. Anyone who has spent any time teaching in a college classroom has to know that not everyone should go to college. Making college a prerequisite for all young people not only wastes scarce resources, but also places professors in the unenviable position of having to motivate students who don’t want to be there in the first place. Ultimately, the students who really want a college education will end up losing out because the quality of their experience will be diluted. There are many high-paying jobs that don’t require a college diploma and no stigma should attach to those individuals who feel inclined to pursue such opportunities.

Oh, by the way, if education becomes a prerequisite for all and the number of young people entering college rises, the increase in demand will exert upward pressure on college tuition, further straining family balance sheets. This is another example of unanticipated consequences that run counter to original intentions. The President is pushing colleges to keep costs down (it’s not clear how this is going to happen) and has proposed reforming federal student aid programs such that dollars would move away from schools that fail to slow tuition growth and toward schools that do. He’s even gone so far as to suggest that the federal government should develop a college rating system that ranks colleges according to average tuition, share of low-income students, effectiveness in ensuring that students don’t graduate with too much debt.

In 2010, the US Department of Education officially defined an academic credit hour. The motivation behind this decision, the details of which are set forth in 145 torturous pages of regulations appearing in the October 29, 2010, issue of the Federal Register, was to reduce fraud and abuse in student aid programs. How can you argue with that?

Well, I’m as much a fan of reducing fraud and abuse as the next guy, but not if the cost of implementing the regulations exceeds the benefits. Let’s ignore all the hours spent by faculty trying to calculate the amount of time it will take students to write a paper, read a chapter, or study for a test. Let’s ignore the time it takes to complete the paperwork needed to document compliance with the regulation. And let’s ignore the time it takes to monitor compliance with the regulation. As you can imagine, I’ve just set aside a pretty substantial chunk of change. What I can’t ignore, however, are the unanticipated consequences of the regulation, specifically, the costs associated with changes in behavior wrought by perverse incentives. Heightened attention to the time students spend on a various educational activities, for example, will almost certainly lead to a proliferation of busy work and a shift in focus from quality to quantity. If compliance is actively monitored and incorporated into faculty performance evaluations, the perverse incentives becomes even more compelling. If the quality of the educational experience suffers as a result, the student is worse off, society is worse off, and the government ends up getting less value for its aid dollars.

One thing I’m not is a fan of government solutions. I find it ironic that the President is so committed to holding colleges accountable for cutting costs and maintaining fiscal discipline, yet he can’t get the country’s own fiscal house in order.

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