A New, Unwanted, Role for National Politicians

Spurred by President Obama’s recent push for college affordability, politicians are now holding hearings about higher education pricing. Everyone seems to agree that there is a problem. But there is, surprise, not much agreement about what to do about it.

According to an article by Mitch Smith at Inside Higher Ed:

Members of the U.S. Senate’s education panel got a firsthand look Thursday at the president’s new higher education agenda, offering both bipartisan support and bipartisan expressions of concern. While consensus emerged that college tuition can’t continue to increase unabated, opinions varied about the proper role of the federal government in stunting that growth. Sen. Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, said the free market can help determine what tuition prices are sustainable.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, pushed for brisk action and clarity about the more specific steps the administration wants legislators to take. She said students are essentially taking out a mortgage to pay for college and aren’t always seeing a return on that investment.

This is true, but it doesn’t help much in terms of determining next steps. Some senators had ideas. The quality of the ideas was a little wanting. Smith:

Wyoming Sen. Michael B. Enzi, the committee’s senior Republican, said that efforts to expand grants for low-income students have failed to stop tuition growth and prove that legislation can accomplish only so much.

“If we’ve learned anything in recent years,” he said, “it’s that the government cannot solve this problem.”

Actually government can solve this problem, just probably not the federal government.

Of course America’s U.S. senators don’t know how to address this issue. That’s because, historically, the way colleges operated had nothing to do with the federal government. Nothing at all aside from Pell grants and Perkins loans, which were, and are, a very small part of most colleges’ budgets.

College budgets were mostly up to state governments. And state schools, which 80 percent of the student population attends, were generously funded by state governments, until recently. Aside the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, and the G.I. Bill of 1944, national politicians didn’t have much of role in setting higher education policy because higher education wasn’t really up to the federal government.

And they will continue to have no real role here, unless they take up the slack of state governments and begin to just fund the colleges out of federal taxes as, well, higher education works in most developed countries. These are the countries that we’re now so worried about because they’re generating so many college graduates.

And that doesn’t appear probable. But it’s unlikely arguing about “the free market” and “clarity about the more specific steps” is a good path to improving college completion.

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