“Fixing” College Costs

With Obama’s efforts to address the cost of college comes an Associated Press article that asks the interesting question “Can Washington fix what ails American higher ed?” Well, maybe.

According to the article by Justin Pope:

At a meeting with college leaders this week, President Barack Obama was looking for ideas. Amid record budget deficits, can Washington actually do anything to help make American colleges less expensive and more productive?

Where you stand depends on where you think the cause lies — with inexorable economic forces that make it virtually inevitable college costs will rise faster than inflation, or with inefficiencies and shortcomings in higher education itself that government policy could help correct.

Of course Washington can’t fix “what ails American higher ed” in any large-scale sense; the federal government doesn’t have any control over American colleges, aside from the limited pressure it can exert through Pell Grants and federal student loans. It might be able to fix something, however.

I’ve argued before that these “inexorable economic forces” are partially a result of the way we fund higher education in the United States. Because Americans pay for college using extensive personal loans, colleges don’t currently have much incentive to reduce the cost to students. This is something Washington might be able to change.

Perhaps Washington can’t “fix” the problem, but it might be able to move the discussion in the right direction.

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