The President’s heart is in the right place, but his college policy sucks.
In last week’s State of the Union address, President Obama shocked many Americans with his statement that funding from taxpayers to America’s colleges and universities would decrease if those schools could not figure out a way to rein in increasing tuition rates.
President Obama’s intentions are honorable. Like most of his domestic legislation, the intent is to lower costs and increase accessibility. In a world where a college degree means an additional million dollars in career earnings, Obama’s heart is in the right place. Unfortunately, his proposals are not needed and have unfortunate similarities with Governor Rick Perry’s poor attempts at higher education reform in Texas.
Here are five reasons this is a poor proposal.
First, Americans have lost the concept of the public good. Once upon a time, tuition was lower because state governments chipped in more aid because it was quite clear that an educated citizenry made everyone better off. Americans, especially state legislators, no longer seem to understand this, and as a result, there is less support for this public good. If states contributed more resources then universities could rein in tuition costs. Essentially, President Obama is absolving state legislators of their responsibility.
Second, each state has different funding mechanisms for higher education. Attempting a one-size carrot-and-stick reward and punishment system when there are fifty different systems does not work in this particular environment because there is no exact minimum that we expect of each state. Some states have several amazingly wonderful, public four-year comprehensive undergraduate and graduate research colleges. Some states have not one. As a result, the funding amounts and mechanisms differ widely in each state. Simply asking schools to control tuition is simplistic, especially given that in many cases individual campuses cannot unilaterally set their tuition.
Third, some schools specialize in liberal arts education, while others specialize in engineering, the hard sciences and agricultural education. These disciplines cost different amounts to effectively teach and conduct research in. Tuition at some schools must be higher and occasionally rise in order to keep up with technology and current trends because labs, technology, and research intensity varies from one school to the next.
Fourth, some schools teach more undergraduates than graduate students. Graduate student education is much more costly because the teacher-student ratio is considerably lower. And, predictably, the undergraduate-graduate student ratio differs from state to state.
Fifth, this approach of focusing on individual colleges and universities lets the federal government off the hook. Congress’s priority should be to restore Pell Grant funding and help make student loans more affordable, not less.
If corporate America, with its billions of unspent cash, wants to come to the rescue with strings-free cash aid, colleges and universities will listen. But until then, please, Mr. President, do not put any more handcuffs on America’s colleges and universities.
MARVIN KING received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of North Texas and is now an Associate Professor of Political Science with a joint appointment in the African American Studies Program at the University of Mississippi. He conducts research into how political institutions affect African American politics. Marvin is available for public speaking engagements and you can follow him on Twitter @kingpolitics