Say what you will about President Obama — and I didn’t vote for him — but the man deserves credit for trying to tame the beast of higher education and bring the national disgrace of skyrocketing college costs under control.
Unveiled last week in Buffalo, Obama’s initiative aims to create a ratings system that scores colleges and universities on several factors, including tuition, graduation rates, and earnings vs. debt among graduates. The federal government has the ability to provide lots of data on colleges and alumni through the IRS, so these ratings could potentially be much more useful than those annual rankings from U.S. News & World Report.
As is the case with government, sunshine in the marketplace is the best disinfectant. It gives consumers the data they crave and allows them to make informed choices. And transparancy will be far more effective in the long run than what second-district Congressman Joe Courtney pushed for recently.
Courtney, a Democrat from Vernon and a member of the House Education and Workforce Committee, led the way on a recent bill to lower interest rates on student loans. While the well intentioned new legislation will provide relief to millions of students, the injection of more government cash into higher education further distorts the market and provides yet another disincentive for colleges to control costs that have risen at double the rate of inflation over the last 25 years.
The situation has reached crisis proportions. Americans are now shouldering more than $1 trillion in student debt, more than either credit-card or mortgage debt — a shocking statistic for a nation with a sluggish economy, stagnant wages and a post-housing-crisis hangover.
Obama’s plan has its critics. I share their concerns that limiting loan payments to 10 percent of income incentivizes students to borrow even more money without having to worry about finding a career that will enable them to pay back their obligation. If you know you’ll never have to pay more than a tenth of your income, why worry about taking those boring accounting courses at Central when you can major in poetry at Bennington?
I’m also troubled by the notion of tying ratings to graduation rates. If federal funds are linked to how many students are receiving diplomas, the colleges will surely be tempted to graduate students who don’t deserve it. If you think grade inflation is rampant now, wait until professors are pressured to pass students who sleepwalk through their classes.
To wit, last week the state Department of Education released Connecticut’s high-school graduation rates for 2012. Ironically, while statewide test scores have stagnated or declined, graduation rates actually rose from 2010 to 2012, including a 2.1-percent rise for last year alone. Why? One can only guess, but schools with low graduation rates suffer from bad publicity and are required to submit costly and time-consuming improvement plans to the state. Who wants that?
It’s unlikely higher education will line up in unison behind Obama’s plan. Some colleges have professed interest but you’d think the state institutions would be crazy to get in line. Subsidized as they are by taxpayers, state colleges look like a great bargain in tough economic times — especially so when compared to private schools that are typically twice as expensive.
UConn’s Storrs campus is poised for record enrollments this year. Even as UConn’s academic standards and tuitions rise, the incoming freshmen class is 21 percent larger than last year and plans call for growing the student body by another third over the next decade.
No, the only effective way to make college affordable will be if students and parents balk at paying Cadillac tuitions for Mazda results. Then — and only then — will universities stop hiring quarter-million-dollar flaks, diversity directors, and associate deans for sustainability.