In higher education coverage this story is almost an evergreen, but Michael Horn had an interesting piece in the Washington Times about the future of higher education funding. According to Horn:

Rather than ask how we can enable more students to afford higher education, we must shift the question to ask how we can make quality postsecondary education affordable.

Historically, student-loan policies have had remarkable success in answering the first question, as they have tripled the number of students enrolled in higher education since 1965. However, they also are partially responsible for higher education’s soaring costs. Over the past 20 years, tuition rates grew at a whopping 275 percent. Continuing along this path now would cascade the country deeper into debt with only a questionable return on investment.

It probably makes more sense to address both questions, actually, since they’re connected. Horn is right, though. College costs rise so dramatically that the numbers start to seem like those weird federal government numbers. Numbers like the national debt or the cost of the war in Iraq, numbers so large they cease to have meaning at all. Fundamentally successful federal higher education policy will not be about just access; it’ll also be about cost.

Horn, who is co-founder and executive director of the Education of Innosight Institute, a non-profit think tank that studies education and innovation, proposes changing the system such that the only way schools could access federal money is if they publicly revealed information about,

measures of quality and student satisfaction relative to cost. The better a school performed on these measure compared to its peers, the higher percentage of its educational operation it could finance with federal aid – thereby eliminating the all-or-nothing access to federal dollars and encouraging students to make decisions based on quality and cost, which would drive institutions to innovate.

Obviously the policy implications of his solution would be complicated but it’s certainly worth considering. If higher education is going to operate like a business, let’s evaluate it like one.

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