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Thursday, August 29, 2013
President Obama’s recent college-funding proposal certainly warrants consideration. But as with all government initiatives, the devil will be in the details, and I see many potential devils lurking.
The president’s idea is to develop a rating system for institutions of higher learning and have those ratings reflected in the distribution of student aid. Details are pretty vague, but the new system would take into account graduation rates, post-college success, tuition costs and other factors. The federal government would then reward highly rated schools, while underachievers would be eligible for fewer taxpayer dollars.
I can see some merit. Disseminating accurate information on the academic success of colleges would benefit prospective students, and channeling money away from lightweight “diploma mill” colleges would likely improve national education. I can’t help but be leery about allowing government to take on further oversight into matters that have been typically left to the private sector.
First of all, it doesn’t bother me terribly that a lot of students fail to graduate. Most of them don’t deserve to graduate. College is (or should be) tough. Students have to work, study, develop expertise, learn discipline, show enough maturity to persevere. I have seen many students fail to graduate because they screwed up, couldn’t cut it or just quit. I’ve never seen a single one fail to graduate because the school was somehow mean to him.
Imagine a future scenario under this proposal. A college enforcing rigorous academic standards is heading for a failure rate in excess of the government ideal. It now faces a potential cut in the federal dollars it will receive next year. Does that school a) continue to apply its rigorous standards on principle and plan on budget reductions; or b) push undeserving students through to graduation regardless of their academic record? I predict grade inflation, already bad, will spiral uncontrollably. Colleges will have every incentive to find the dimmest student on campus, drag him away from his video game and staple a mortarboard on his empty head.
It also seems that this proposal may well limit the choices of students. Another scenario: A single mother wants to go back to school and get her degree. The nearest school to her is, through no fault of hers, not highly rated by the feds, and so she cannot get as generous a financial aid package as she could at a larger school half a state away. At the nearby school she could commute, take classes around her work schedule and not disrupt her family; and even if it’s not a top-10 university she could get a solid education. (After all, students who take the initiative to learn can get a great education at even a mediocre school, and students who don’t can graduate from the Ivy League dumb as a potato).
Does this lady go to the nearby school, even if her financial aid would be less; pack up her family to go to the better school, assuming she could be admitted; or give up on her dream of attending college because the federal government stuck its nose into these affairs?
Further, I worry if state authority over colleges might be abused over time at the expense of academic freedom. If the federal government takes for itself the role of arbiter of what constitutes a good school, it seems there is a wide opening there for future misuse of such power. I know this is not the president’s intention, but imagine down the road a liberal administration deciding it would defund a school that offered courses critical of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Or a conservative administration deciding to defund colleges that demonstrate the famous leftward bias of academia. Crack open the door of government control, and all too often the door disappears entirely.
Finally, this proposal seems to hinge on a highly debatable thesis: that there are not enough people in college these days. A good argument can be made that in fact there are far too many people enrolled (and precisely because government subsidies encourage it). There aren’t jobs for all these graduates. I read recently that there are 115,000 janitors in the nation with four-year degrees (and sometimes beyond). They probably owe a year’s salary in student loans.
Once upon a time, college was for students who were interested in academic careers, not a four-year extension of high school. I am not convinced the president’s proposal offers much real improvement in higher education.
Long is a Roanoke Times columnist and director of the Salem Museum.
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