Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Higher Ed Act Renewal, Senate Style

By Richard Vedder

The renewal of the Higher Education Act is a huge enterprise, and Doug Lederman of Inside Higher Ed tells us that the proposed Senate bill is over 500 pages long. Considering that the 10 Commandments are about 100 words and the Gettysburg Address is 320, this 125,000 word or so bill will not win any awards for brevity, conciseness, clarity, etc.

If Doug is right, the good in this bill may out weigh the bad, although truly fundamental, important and, yes, radical reform of the type we embrace at CCAP is missing. On the negative side, perhaps, it abolishes NACIQI, the advisory board of the Secretary of Education that oversees accreditation, replacing it with a new board of the same size. Why? Congress wants to take control, appointing 10 of the 15 members. I worry about that from the standpoint of politicization and good governance, and am concerned Congress is trying to infringe on the functions of the executive branch. We elect a President to run the country, and the Democrats who control Congress may be using short-sighted policy means to increase their hand in battling President Bush and his appointed Education Secretary, Margaret Spellings. But in the very long list of Congressional sins, this one ranks pretty low.

The good seems to be that the Senate is embracing the principles of the Spellings Commission with respect to major increases in information reporting, and pushing colleges in the direction of telling real people (not just policy wonks and government bureaucrats) about outcomes-based measures of performance. That is a real plus. Is it enough? No. Can colleges probably thwart the law at least in part? Probably, yes. But it is a start. And if the colleges ignore it, they may do so at some political peril. Also a plus: the idea of a highly publicized watch list of schools that are raising their tuition fees a lot. Not a price control, it is simply a means of trying to shame and humiliate greedy and inefficient colleges (which, at the moment, is most of them).

The remarkable thing about higher ed legislation this year is that the Dems and GOP seem to agree in principle on a lot of big things, even though they disagree over other things. I am sick of the talk of what is the optimal administrative price (fee) that should be charged by student loan providers. The government should get out of that business entirely, or at the very least allow markets to play a role in fee determination. Pell Grant increases meet certain accessibility goals, but I am increasingly skeptical whether they have much positive impact, and repeat my view that too many, not too few, kids go to college anyhow. But for a bill coming from a committee headed by Edward Kennedy, it could be a lot worse. Maybe divided government isn't such a bad thing. As I once said, "three cheers for gridlock!"

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