Saturday, August 14, 2004

Political Tuition: When Politics Raises the Cost of Education

Politicians love talking about America needing a “stable economy.” And it’s true: a stable economy—as in one that rests on a reliable foundation of the rule of law, safety, free-flowing information and other wide sweeping institutions—is an economy where people can confidently build personal and physical infrastructure.

But politicians take it several steps farther, using the mantra of a “stable economy” to justify political action in places where not only the state has no business being, but actually makes the economy less stable. The Des Moines Register reported Thursday that Iowa community colleges are drastically raising tuition because the state budget is strained beyond measure.

It never fails to amaze me when people think that the state is more reliable than the market. Policies and politics lack the autonomy of the market. The federal, state and municipal governments do a great deal (most of it unnecessary and counterproductive) and when one department wants more money, it has to come from somewhere. But changes in allocation aren’t determined by the people, like in a market economy; it’s made by politicians looking to get re-elected and interest group trying to push their version of the truth onto everyone else.

All educational institutions raise their tuition, but these are based on real economic factors, not the whims and sudden shifts in the political landscape. When a bureaucracy is put in place, it’s participants are the only ones that are a position to properly assess its effectiveness. And like a private monopoly, they lack the incentive to change or to acknowledge their shortcomings. Gene Garner, executive director of the Iowa Association of Community College Trustees, cites low residential taxes, not political realities, as the source of the budget woes. No one should be surprised he likes “stability.”


-Ron said...

Higher Education. For we students, there are few topics that are of greater concern. Mr. Youngberg takes time in this post to address the failings of the state when it tries to operate as a business. Of course, I couldn’t agree more. However, there are other economic and pseudo-economic aspects of the state’s interference in higher education that are just as important as tuition, and perhaps more so. The following article was first published in the “Bethany Political Journal” and addresses the inflationary effect of government’s intrusion into post-secondary education over the last several decades. I think it is applicable to the topic, and I hope that neither Mr. Youngberg nor Mr. Mills will mind my reprinting it here.

Educational Inflation

There was a time, no so long ago, when a college degree was premium, a masters rare, and a PhD nearly unheard of. Today college degrees are a dime-a-dozen commodity. Go ahead, try and get hired on one and you’ll see. Masters and higher vocational degrees such as Law are now absolutely necessary for serious career advancement. Terminal degrees such as the PhD, while still predominately the domain of college teaching, are also on a numeric rise. If we apply the basic principles of economics, what we are seeing is an inflationary trend.

Alfred Nock, writing in the early 20th century, noted that there are two categories of learners: the educable and the trainable, the Einsteins and the Edisons. Not that one is any better than the other, because certainly both are essential to our civilization. But in this distinction lies the fundamental recognition that not everyone is equally suited to all forms of education. This used to be pretty much universally recognized. A look back into history at America’s colleges will reveal Forestry Schools, Technical Training Centers, and Teacher Training Colleges. Each in its way aimed at the trainable student, that is, the student whose occupation would be largely skill-based. Park rangers, welders, heating and cooling, auto mechanics, broadcasting, teaching, and social services are all careers that would have fallen into this category.

Liberal arts educations were reserved for those individuals who could pass the rigorous admissions examinations; tests that would make our senior comps look wimpy. The liberal arts education of days forgone was intensive. A student would have been expected to demonstrate some mastery of Greek, Latin, and also French or German. Students read, and then wrote on, almost every major work of historical, political, philosophical, and literary import. And late work was a ticket out the door. I can think of only a handful of people who could measure up in such a system today, and I am not one of them.

The point here is that because liberal arts education was the exception rather than the rule, there was no stigma attached to an education derived from somewhere other than a liberal arts college. And because of that, people typically went into those programs that were best suited to provide them with gainful employment commensurate with their skill and ability. Yes, it is true that business leaders and presidents usually came from a liberal arts background, but is that any surprise? For by virtue of the fact that they qualified for a liberal arts education, were not those individuals the most academically capable? Contrastly, would you trust the Secretary of State to fixing your muffler? When exactly did our society determine that both groups of people should be educated in the same manner? And perhaps more importantly, when did we begin viewing these other viable forms of post-secondary education with disdain?

Part of this educational inflation involves grades. Because there are so many liberal arts colleges all competing for students who are less and less prepared for a liberal arts education, the quality – or perhaps more accurately, the level – of teaching at those colleges necessarily drops. The corollary is that grades are de facto inflated. The student who gets an A today would still probably fail Mr. Campbell’s final examination, there is that much of a difference over the last 150 years. So students bearing A’s and degrees are not worth what they once were, and that has driven down the purchasing power of the degree, which is why high-earning occupations now require masters degrees or beyond. Applied to money, this is the same principle that has a 10¢ loaf of bread costing consumers $2 today.

This educational inflation trend manifests itself in other ways as well. Let’s look at the public schools. Most public schools operate on a liberal arts / college preparatory model, despite the fact that only about half will actually go on to college. Which means that our multi-billion dollar taxpayer funded educational establishment makes routine habit of spitting out graduates who are not ready to enter the workforce, unless McDonalds counts. Very few programs operate on a school-to-work paradigm. This is why I favor school choice. Not a choice between two schools that do exactly the same thing, but between schools whose emphases and teaching paradigms are decidedly different. For example, parents might choose to send their children to vocational school, or to a music and arts school, or to a college prep school, or to special ed school, and so on.

Ultimately, it doesn’t much matter to me if these are all public schools, all private schools, or something in between. What matters is that some schools will continue to send kids on to liberal arts educations, while the rest can focus on making young people more productive in society earlier. If this so-called brain-based research about education is to be believed, and individualist and constructivist paradigms are correct, then this model of school choice is not only the natural outcome of these educational philosophies, but absolutely necessary if they are to be successful. The tendency of our present system is to push all students to go to college. The self-fulfilling prophecy that results is that more, less-qualified students are obtaining degrees, bidding up the job-seeking process to the point that all students now have to go to college even to make $20K a year, unless of course you are one of a handful of folks still able to find a job welding or fixing cars.

No single entity has been more harmful to education in this context than the federal government. Ultimately, the policies that have driven this change are federal ones. Thanks to Johnson-era federal funding of schools, culminating with Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation, all public schools have in essence been federalized, soviet-style. One cannot help but to marvel at the irony of a Republican, whose espoused platform is smaller government, who end-runs local control to put the feds firmly in the educational drivers seat. I am moved to applaud states like Utah and Virginia who are seriously pondering whether to dispense with federal dollars altogether so that they can reassert local control.

It is the federal government who from the first days following WWII has been advancing a national homogenization program. For example, standardized tests, couched in the language of accountability, have given federal bureaucrats the leverage they need to push schools in particular educational directions, such as increased focus on college prep programs. This behavior, of course is all contingent upon receiving federal funds. No hoop, no loot. The paradox of this being that federal dollars amount to only a small percentage of overall school funding, dependence upon which could be replaced with something as simple as a ½ cent state sales tax. In political science we recognize that coercion, or the fear of it, is largely conditional upon the source of income, not the amount of it. In other words, local control of education is in fundamental conflict with federal interference. As long as the source of local educational funding remains with the federal government, however limited the share of that funding might be, there can never be something we truly call locally controlled education. And this is why, incidentally, that I oppose public, government-funded vouchers of any kind, because they increase, rather than decrease, dependence of ordinary citizens on the direct and ongoing benevolence of the federal government.

This same principle is at work in colleges. In making students dependent upon federal financial aid, and making that financial aid contingent upon college accreditation, the federal government has fashioned for itself with ability to control college education, including private schools to the extent that they accept federal financial aid. Which is to say that if a college, say Bethany, were to attempt to return to educational standards reflective of Alexander Campbell, we would almost immediately loose our accreditation, and hence our ability to receive financial aid, and hence our ability to attract anything other than wealthy students. And to bring this argument full-circle, this plays into a larger trend of inflating the value and price of a college degree. It aids in producing significantly more degrees, at noticeably higher cost to the student. This in turn means that more supposedly college-educated people are applying for jobs, making you less useful in the workplace, less employable, and ultimately, working for less money. This in turn ensures that it takes you longer to pay off your college loans, guarantees that you have less money to save or invest, must work longer to retire, and are generally poorer than your 19th century counterpart.

By way of a final thought, take into consideration this excerpt from a party platform: “In order to make possible to every capable and industrious [citizen] the attainment of higher education and thus the achievement of a post of leadership, the government must provide an all-around enlargement of our entire system of public education…” It seems lifted right out of the Department of Education handbook. Indeed, it seems to encapsulate the way in which many view public education today. Would it bother you to find that this is from the political program of the Nazi Party, adopted in Munich, February 24, 1920? The similarity certainly should. And more significantly, should call us to examine the legitimacy of federal interference of any kind in our state and local public education.

Mike said...

Godwin's Law rears its ugly head. Did you write that, Ron?

-Ron said...

Yes, Mr. Mills, that's mine. I believe plagarism to be very bad. Orig. at