Brake: Policymakers Should Focus on Education, Not Student Aid

Posted March 24, 2010 at 3:09pm

As the dust settles from President Barack Obama’s and the Democratic Congress’ sweeping federal takeover of health care, another federal takeover came to light earlier this week, snuck in at the last minute by White House and Congressional negotiators — the massive student loan industry.

[IMGCAP(1)]Apart from the dubious merits of including this nongermane piece of education legislation in a health care bill (another ornament on this 2,700-page Christmas tree of a bill that few legislators have even read), the provision raises the specter of another aspect of the American economy coming under the control of federal bureaucrats. Supporters of the measure argue that they are only removing the “middleman” from the process, thereby saving taxpayers billions of dollars in bank fees. We’ll see about that.

When was the last time you heard of the federal government, lacking the strictures of the profit motive, ever performing a service cheaper than the private sector? Also, it is rumored that the primary reason that the provision was placed in the health care bill to begin with is that any savings that would accrue from the reform will be earmarked to help pay for the new health care entitlements that are back-loaded in the statute. My guess is that, in the end, this “reform” will wind up increasing, not decreasing, the cost of borrowing for college-bound Americans.

Be that as it may, perhaps the most troubling aspect of this new federal intrusion in the higher education marketplace is its underlying assumptions about the best way to control college costs. Whether it has been efforts to increase Pell Grants, or now this student loan fix, President Obama and his allies in Congress, driven I believe by the best of intentions, have assumed that by increasing federal aid to students, this will help them better afford college. And there is no doubt that college costs have skyrocketed recently, more than doubling the rate of inflation over the past 20 years.

However, every time the federal government has increased aid to students, colleges have turned around and raised tuition and fees accordingly. Couple that with the increased demand for college that has occurred during the same period, and the result has been exorbitant tuition hikes by both public and private universities. It has been said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and if that is true, then it would seem that there is a little bit of the devil in these student loan details.

Finally, absent from all of these discussions is a debate about what college students (and their cash-strapped parents) are getting from their higher education investment. As tuition rises, has there been a concomitant increase, for example, in the academic quality of a college degree? Actually, there is now empirical evidence that can finally speak to that issue, and unfortunately, the results are not encouraging.

For the past five years, the nonprofit Intercollegiate Studies Institute has been issuing civic literacy studies (go to www.americancivicliteracy.org for more details) documenting for the first time whether a college degree actually adds to a student’s storehouse of knowledge, in this particular instance, civic knowledge necessary for informed and responsible citizenship. After surveying 14,000 freshmen and 14,000 seniors from 85 separate institutions of higher learning, the ISI discovered that undergraduates are woefully ignorant about the core history, key texts and enduring political and economic institutions of the American republic. For example, when given a basic 60-question multiple choice test, these students averaged a 54 percent or F on the exam.

On questions regarding the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, federalism, judicial review, the Federalist Papers, and free-market economics (among many others), our student sample earned a failing grade. And get this, at elite schools such as Yale, Cornell, Princeton, Duke, Georgetown and Berkeley, their freshmen did better than their seniors on the same test, a troubling new phenomenon ISI dubbed “negative learning”!

Taken together, what all his means is that instead of focusing on the aid side (which has done nothing to reduce costs), the federal government would be wise to focus on the quality side of higher education, and a good place to start is a close examination of the curricula offered at many of our schools. Students can’t learn what they’re not taught, and it is the painful truth that most students can graduate from college without ever having to take a survey course in American history or American government. And just like with health care, a little more consumer sovereignty and information would probably go a long way in both increasing quality and decreasing costs, so why not require colleges to release their own accrediting data documenting how much their students are actually learning in their course of study (and if they don’t have that data, then require them to start collecting it)? Most college rankings only evaluate the inputs of higher education; parents and taxpayers would benefit greatly from knowing more about the specific outputs of a college degree.

Until we address the quality issue, as well as the entire question of whether an expensive four-year college degree is the best or only way to prepare young Americans for the work force, no amount of secretive backroom federal takeovers will fix what ails our colleges and universities. The sooner policymakers realize that, the sooner they can truly begin to help American families prepare their children, in an affordable way, for success in the careers of their choice.

Richard Brake is co-chairman of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s National Civic Literacy Board. For more details regarding the ISI’s past and current civic literacy studies and to take the test online, go to www.americancivicliteracy.org.