Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Best of Times, Worst of Times

By Richard Vedder

Tomorrow, the Higher Education Commission created by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is meeting in the auditorium of the Department of Education main building in Washington, where, I am certain, they will vote to approve a report (I understand there may have to a formal signing of the official document at some later date, but that will only be of symbolic importance).

If Chairman Charles Miller gives the commissioners a chance to make a brief statement, here is what I will say:
"As Charles Dickens once wrote, these are the best of times, the worst of times. The good news is that the Higher Education Commission has come in with a report, that, if adopted, will improve American postsecondary education and impact positively on the quality of life in America. That is an important accomplishment, and one we can be proud to have contributed towards.

The bad news is two-fold. First, the report has a number of deficiencies, and second, the forces of evil will work mightily to keep sensible reforms from happening. Regarding the first point, I agree with my new friend and pal Bob Zemsky that the report is overly long and not bold enough. To cite merely one example, we say we should simplify federal student aid programs but we don't do something really bold, like saying we should go to one federak program, a national voucher-like extension of the current Pell Grant program. We don't say anything about grade inflation, a lack of coherence in the curriculum, indifference of faculty at most schools to the broader development of students as citizens, the deplorable lack of intellectual diversity on some campuses, the outrageous practice of congressional earmarks for various forms of academic research pork, and little about the excessive emphasis on non-academic things, ranging from intercollegiate athletics to running hotels and country club like facilities for students.

Even worse, however, is the fact that the enemies of change know a very important and fundamental principle of the science or art of public choice: the principle of diffused benefits and concentrated costs. Implementing reform will impose some significant short-term costs on a few thousand institutions of higher education, but will provide smaller but tangible benefits on literally millions of students and their families. While the benefits clearly outweigh the costs for the nation as a whole, those facing the costs will scream and fight change, while the American people who will benefit will likely remain what scholars call "rationally ignorant" of what is going on. Two major groups will lead the fight against change: some of the college associations, most notably David Warren's National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, and the student loan providers, most notably Sallie Mae. I suspect that some of the opposition will not use reasoned arguments so much as money, indirectly threatening members of Congress with politiical retribution if they cut off the funding gravy train. Many colleges likewise will resist our call for transparency, for opening up their books and their operations to public scrutiny, or for asking them to prove that their students are actually benefiting from their university experience. In short, we have our work cut out for us as we enter the action phase. Let us work together to try to see that the Commission's work is not in vain."

No comments: