Friday, November 16, 2007

Good News on or near the Potomac

By Richard Vedder

It is probably good news when the House Education Committee votes 44 to nothing to move the Higher Education Act along. The colleges are starting to realize that all the high priced lobbyists in the world and personal visits to Congressional offices (the President of my university was in DC yesterday making the rounds) cannot neutralize the anger that Republicans and Democrats equally feel toward colleges for their flagrant disregard for the consumer and how their parochial pursuit of higher rankings seemingly trumps any consideration of costs and efficiency.

The revised higher ed act is imperfect, and I have learned of more imperfections in it from talking to staff for extremely high level Administration officials. For example, while I generally like the Hall of Shame approach with respect to tuition (and strongly oppose overt tuition controls), I think revisions are needed to make it more effective and to reduce the gaming of the system by colleges and universities determined to subvert the will of the people's representatives.


When I served on the Spellings Commission, I kept hearing about the good things that Brit Kirwan was doing at the University of Maryland. I was impressed with Kirwan during his brief tenure at Ohio State, and after reading a story in today's Washington Post my admiration goes up. Kirwan has a far greater appreciation than most academic leaders for the public mood on higher education and the ability of legislators, governors and, ultimately, the general public to reduce or eliminate the privileged position that universities have in our society. Kirwan has dramatically reduced, indeed almost eliminated, budgetary growth, and has kept tuition increases the last couple of years below the general inflation rate. He has increased teaching loads, slashed unnecessary staff, and encouraged innovations in teaching.

Moreover, Kirwan is honest enough to admit he is doing this to win legislative confidence and support --and he is getting it. The Maryland legislature, like that in other states, is reversing earlier cuts in real appropriation levels. Legislators have competing claims on funds, and also taxpayers hate to have the price of government rise through tax increases. Medicaid in particular is a thorny problem, and if it comes to choosing between subsidizing upper middle class kids wanting advanced education in a country club like setting or older citizens needing medical care to stay alive and have a decent quality of life, they will go with the old people all the time (if for no other reason than that most of them vote, unlike college students). Kirwin sees the problem with giving many merit based scholarships (as opposed to need based ones) in an era of rising student debt. In short, he is sensitive to the fact that we have a government of the people, for the people, and by the people, and the people are increasingly skeptical of how universities operate, their arrogance, and their isolation from the real world of real people.


A little farther from the Potomac is Philadelphia. I had some nice things to say yesterday about Peirce College and its president Art Lendo, a friend of mine who has taken an institution offering two year training to a thousand or so students a year and made it into a four year college with nearly triple that enrollment. I got home last night and opened my mail, only to learn that Art has announced he is retiring. Good luck in the future to a person who has been a positive and innovative force in American higher education.

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