An American University System

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Perhaps ever since John Quincy Adams proposed his political nonstarter national university in 1828, it’s been well established that the U.S. federal government pretty much stays out of education. Rules about public schools are pretty much left to the states and in terms of colleges, the federal role is mostly limited to money for scientific research and financial aid. Well, no longer. According to an article in Diverse Issues in Higher Education:

Scholars, academic administrators and higher education policy officials have largely interpreted the administration’s pronouncements, more than $100 billion in education stimulus funding and the community college-focused American Graduation Initiative, as markers of a significant shift in federal higher education policy and the making of a credible push for an expanded federal role in American higher education. It’s also significant that the “Race to the Top” initiative, the administration’s K-12 education reform effort, focuses on school districts getting more students prepared for college, experts note.

The article is a little quote-heavy so it’s not terribly clear how exactly the federal role in education will expand so vastly under Obama. Historically, however, the federal role in education (whether in primary education, or in terms of college) has been limited, debatable, and constantly changing.

But traditionally the “intrusion” of the federal role government goes like this: the federal government gives money for a program, the more money it gives; however, the more it can control the program. This is how the U.S. got No Child Left Behind (NCLB comes through federal money for Free and Reduced Lunch. It’s a voluntary program but no one can refuse the money).

With the administration contemplating giving a $12 billion overhaul to community colleges, there is a possibility that the federal government could greatly increase the role it has in higher education.

Right now it’s far too early to tell. But with the average total cost of public four-year institutions now running $15,213 a year, maybe it’s time for some federal intervention. As is true with so many things in Washington the effective solution probably has a lot more to do with making sure the federal government does a good job. Successful policy rare results from hand wringing about federal intrusion alone.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer