Friday, November 12, 2010

The 2010 Election Results and Higher Education

By Richard Vedder*

Do the 2010 congressional elections really matter? I suspect the answer is yes, and I am probably a fool for speculating about them right before they take place, but tenured professors usually don’t care much about whether they are foolish or not, as it has little impact on their material lives.

Like everyone else, I think the Republicans are going to make big gains, likely taking over the House. I sense that Democratic last-minute actions to avert disaster have had a small amount of success, but not enough to prevent a bloodbath. Dozens of sitting Democrats in the House who want to continue will lose their jobs, perhaps exceeding the postwar high for that statistic. Nancy Pelosi is in her last weeks as Speaker.

John Boehner was the former chair of the House Education and Work Force Committee, and has a far more sympathetic view towards things like private provision of student loans and for-profit education. In the Senate, I think the GOP gains will solidify their ability to block Democratic initiatives, but not big enough to successfully put forward an alternative agenda. Remember, Barack Obama is still president, and I doubt he is temperamentally capable of bending and compromising in a pragmatic way with the GOP, so he would veto moderate, middle-of-the-road proposals that are inconsistent with his socialist and collectivist way of thinking.

What that might mean is gridlock. Now, gridlock is not all bad. In the mid-1990s, there was a period of divided power (Clinton in the White House, GOP controlling the House of Representatives) and our nation, more or less, flourished. Sometimes gridlock forces compromises that the increasingly partisan and ideologically oriented Congress could not otherwise deliver.

Yet some of the Obama plans need to be modified. The attack on the for-profit universities while ignoring poor performance of traditional institutions is both unfair and bad policy. Either hold everyone accountable by the same standards or turn quality control over to the states, where it originally resided and, arguably, where it belongs. The continued increase in federal financial aid without systematic reform of the system is fiscally irresponsible and contributes to the rising problem of the low-wage college dropout or even college graduate. Why shouldn’t Pell Grants, for example, be tied at least somewhat to expectations of success? Why shouldn’t academic excellence be rewarded and mediocrity punished, at least modestly?

I hope the House Republicans, if they assume control, push on these issues, even if they face a dubious future in the Senate and a potential Obama veto. Basically, the notion of federal college grants as an entitlement no matter how bleak the prospects of academic success are is extremely expensive, often debilitating, to the students involved, and arguably morally suspect.

The idea of requiring schools that want to operate throughout the U.S. online offerings to get licensing in every single state is anti-competitive, anti-consumer, anti-small business, anti-capitalist, and otherwise just dumb. It has been 186 years since the U.S. Supreme Court in Gibbons v. Ogden decided that New York State could not use its licensing powers to keep steamboat companies from operating in multiple jurisdictions. Individual state licensing of essentially interstate activities was condemned. It was a good decision during the Administration of James Monroe, and it is a good principle in the Administration of Barack Obama.

There are many other reforms of higher education that need to be addressed, but I doubt very much that Washington will be the impetus of these changes, at least for now.

In short, this election will make a difference, arguably not a transcendental difference owing to the likelihood of divided government, but a difference nonetheless.

This post originally appeared on the "Innovations" blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education on November 1, 2010.

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