By Richard Vedder
I am in Washington, D.C., and have spent some time with a large number of political leaders, opinion-makers, etc., ranging from freshman Congressmen to the Chief Justice. It is amazing how often the subject of higher education has come up.
I heard two major GOP presidential candidates speak, Rudy Guiliani and Fred Thompson. Interestingly, neither mentioned higher education at all in their 20-30 minute speeches. This confirms my suspicion that the GOP candidates may be neglecting a topic of growing interest to the general public --rising higher education costs. In contrast, Democratic candidates are speaking up on this issue, Senator Clinton has issued a detailed and serious higher education proposal as part of her campaign strategy.
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson did raise the topic of higher education during a Q and A session after a short speech. He opined that our K-12 system is producing an inferior product that puts us at a competitive disadvantage internationally in the long run. He contrasted this to our higher education system, which he asserted was "the best in the world." Is it? How does he know? If so, what explains the difference in the quality of education at the two different levels? On that, he was silent. Paulson is a sharp guy, a heavyweight who once ran Goldman Sachs, but he seems somewhat out of it with respect to higher education --why is that? Indifference? Ignorance? Reform in higher education will come only when people of substance get interested in the problem.
I was also at a nice session honoring the late Chief Justice Rehnquist. Former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor noted how Bill Rehnquist, her fellow Stanford student, worked his way through college. His daughter Janet noted that the GI Bill made it possible for him to go to both Stanford as an undergraduate and as a law student, demonstrating that this modified voucher plan helped provide access to someone who used that education most productively. To me, that is why a modified GI Bill approach holds more promise when it comes to government higher education support than dropping money out of airplanes over college campuses ---blanket institutional subsidies.
Chief Justice Roberts noted how Rehnquist's knowledge of history wowed his clerks (including Roberts). The Chief Justice would ask his clerks about obscure battles in the early 18th century and be chagrined when his clerks had no idea about them, shaking his head over the qualitative decline in American education. What would he have thought about student performance on the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's rather simple examination on civic literacy, on which even Harvard seniors average less than 70 percent?