And colleges, under this theory, keep their prices up to match their competitors because a lower tuition would be seen by many prospective students and parents as a reflection of lower quality compared to their peers.
Many economists also point out that federal subsidies for higher education are themselves a contributing factor in increasing college costs.
I am sure there are many other factors and that they vary according to school, region and state. But it makes sense to hold serious hearings on this, not to bash colleges or rail against presumed pampered professors, and to look at ways to keep college costs from going up even more and pricing too many students out of the market without damaging the quality of the universities.
That leads to another and larger reality. Our higher-education system is our crown jewel. It has long led the world and is a major part of the reason that the overwhelming majority of Nobel laureates come from or are based in the United States. We cannot afford to let this system deteriorate, either as the engine of basic research and creativity or as the magnet for the best and brightest in the United States and around the world.
States such as California and Michigan cannot afford to let their public university systems, their crown jewels, deteriorate, whether it’s because state legislatures cut funding or because of the economic downturn and the loss of federal aid.
The crazy fandango going on now over the looming sequesters, including House GOP plans to implement double cuts in discretionary domestic spending in order to preserve every dime of the defense budget, completely bypasses the implications of cuts not just for students but for the entire future of the country and its role in a global economy, in which a robust higher-education infrastructure is key.
That is not a liberal or conservative position, but a simple reality that should not be ignored in a headlong rush to cut government.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.