Government’s role in higher education

Published on Sunday, 22 June 2014 22:45 - Written by

Here’s the conversation we’re really having: Should the government guarantee a college education to all students who want one? In other words, should we be thinking about K-16 school systems, rather than K-12 systems?

That’s the real question here. Two recent trends demonstrate this, even if no one is saying it out loud. But until we do discuss it in clear terms, all of the debate about student loan debt and college costs will remain a mere distraction.

The first trend is President Barack Obama’s plan to reduce the “burden” of student loan debt on former students. It’s a step toward outright forgiveness of many loans.

“Under the latest version of President Obama’s giveaway to former college students, people with student loans that meet certain income eligibility standards will only need to pay 10 percent of their discretionary income for a maximum of 20 years,” explains Forbes magazine. “If a borrower works for a government or in a job defined as public service, they only have to pay for 10 years. After that, the remaining balance is forgiven.”

There are many problems with this plan. As we’ve pointed out before, the plan gets the whole problem backwards. The issue isn’t the cost of student loans, it’s the cost of college. By addressing only the symptom, Obama’s plan will let the real problem fester.

In fact, the president’s plan will only make the real problem worse, because if colleges and students know the federal government will pay them off eventually, why bother to keep costs down?

The second trend is a new call for a “Obamacare for higher ed.”

Left-leaning magazine The Week cites (largely theoretical) cost savings in the health care industry brought about by the Affordable Care Act.

“Conditions in our higher-ed system are ripe for this kind of innovative policy fix,” the magazine contends. “As in health care, the government has for too long indiscriminately shelled out money for college with little eye toward the quality its dollars are buying. Just as Medicare makes the government the most significant payer in health care, federal student loans give the government a central role in financing higher education — a position of purchasing power that the government could leverage into lower costs and better quality.”

It’s certainly true the government is the biggest investor in high education — the federal government spends $150 billion per year in student aid, and holds about $1 trillion of the $1.02 trillion in student loan debt.

But here’s the thing. Both these trends are largely irrelevant to the real issue. The real issue is the government’s role in providing college education. The current model, built largely around post-World War II demand, is that the government should enable people to go to college — through loans or grants or even the GI Bill.

What’s being proposed now, in all but words, is a guarantee of a college education, just as children are guaranteed elementary and secondary educations.

That’s the real conversation, and we’re ready to have it. But first, let’s all recognize that’s what we’re talking about.