There is no “right” to an education in the Constitution. However, if governments are going to run education programs for both children and young adults, they have an obligation to provide a quality education and to make it affordable for the people who support the institution with their taxes.
I’ll save public schools below the college level for another discussion. For now, let’s discuss the two problems with college tuition in the present.
First, colleges across the nation raise the costs of tuition independent of the cost of living, the market, or any other economic metric. When the economy is good, college prices go up. When the economy is bad, college prices go up. Those prices don’t seem to be tied to any reasonable measure. Why is that?
The first problem is that colleges know that federal funds are always available to support colleges. Colleges hove no incentive (zip, zero, nadda) to keep their prices down, because the federal government will send Pell Grants, support student loans (that students themselves won’t pay, but the government will), and multiple other federal college assistance programs.
This isn’t a problem if everyone can now afford to go to college. The problem is that the high costs of college with federal assistance only allow the rich and the poor to attend school. The rich will send their own children to college with their own money, while the poor will go with federal aid. But the vast swath of middle-income earners (those who work hard but aren’t “rich”) make too much money to be eligible for federal assistance, and too little money to pay their own way.
The easy answer is to say that those middle class kids that deserve to go to college can do so on their merit, by getting scholarships. The counter argument (equally easy) is to point out that those middle class kids are competing with both upper and lower class students for those same scholarships. One can go a step further and point out that many admission policies and scholarships are designed to exclude students based on the color of their skin – if they are white and middle class. Student of Asian decent are also discriminated against in many quota based admissions policies, particularly for grad and professional schools (despite the so-called abolition of raced based quotas in higher education).
The second problem that happens with the run away costs of education is that schools dumb down. It is fairly easy to find videos on the internet or on television talk shows of college students that can’t name the vice-president, can’t name the three branches of government, can’t name the belligerents in World War Two, or can’t point to major countries on the map (like Germany, Japan, or India). I frequently come into contact with college students (both under and post-graduate) who can’t do simple arithmetic, speak English properly, or discuss any current or historical event with any knowledge. (My eight year old daughter, sitting at our piano, was recently asked by a student with near perfect grades if she would play some “Shakespeare”).
College today isn’t what it was founded to be. Post grad degrees used to be rare, and they really meant something. College used to teach students to think for themselves, how to use reason and research. One had to be a voracious reader and writer to attain a degree. Critical thinking, logic, fallacies, and philosophy reigned supreme. Then two things happened.
First, colleges were taken over by the radical left. Education shifted from how to think (reason and research) to what to think. Schools became indoctrination centers designed to tell you (and then to test you) on the evils of capitalism, the evils of the free market, the evils of faith, the goodness of socialism, communism, relative thinking (our enemies are right, we don’t possess any truth), and atheism.
Second, colleges turned into diploma mills. All one needs today is a college diploma to get certain jobs that are “gate kept” by the requirement to get a degree. Four year colleges and universities are nothing more than vocational schools and community colleges – they are all designed around “vocation” instead of higher learning. How many “classical education” universities exist in today’s United States? You can count them on your fingers. (Hint: none of the Ivy League schools present a classical education).
If one could drag colleges into the free market, rewarding only schools that provide a superior product, colleges would have to compete for money. As the situation currently stands, there is no incentive for a college to be affordable. Indeed, many universities pride themselves on the delusion that the cost of a university is proportionate to how strong the education is. Rubbish! Many private colleges (many in fact that few people have heard of) have tougher academic standards and tougher admissions policies. Those schools don’t play along with the annual ratings games played by major magazines. The one thing that ought to be rated that isn’t is “Are the classes taught with a classical approach, and how much is one actually taught?”
The solution is simple, though it would take a strong stomach to implement it. The solution would slash the costs associated with college, making more students eligible to attend. On the other hand, schools would start competing based on the product they turn out. This means that while more people could attend college, colleges that turn out “junk diplomas” would fall. Unlike today, where a degree is a degree for many jobs, human resource offices would weigh more closely the college the degree came from. Some schools today are “prestigious” because of their names and the wealth of their students, but under the new metric, some schools would be “elite” because they churn out students that are, for lack of a better word, smarter.
The solution is, of course, to cut federal funding of colleges. Without the federal welfare that goes to colleges, colleges would have to lower costs or close their doors. College would instantly become more affordable for more students. For the very poor, private assistance would remain in terms of scholarships which would be needs based. Colleges might have to drop some of their own scholarship programs based on athletics and race, and start putting those funds towards potential students who are both poor and academically excellent. Under the current system, we spend an extraordinary amount of tax dollars to send poor young adults to school who then drop out of college because they were poor or belonged to a minority, not because they had a strong academic background.
If there is a role for federal money to colleges, it is to reward those who served their nation. As long as a former service member can meet the academic standards, there is no reason why the federal government can’t pay a “full ride” for veterans, and perhaps a full ride for the children of combat veterans. Thus, anybody (regardless of economic status) may be able to fully afford a good college instead of getting partial assistance from a GI Bill.
Strip the colleges of federal funds, and colleges will have to become affordable to keep their doors open. They’ll also have to streamline their operations. Professors may have to (God forbid!) teach their own classes instead of using grad students. Professors may have to actually be experts in their fields, not radical celebrities. Ivy League schools would have to stop trying to be “prestigious” and start being “elite”. And money would go to schools based on what the finished product was, not just paddle along while receiving dumps of cash from taxpayers, many of whom can’t afford college because they aren’t poor enough or rich enough to go.
There is just one catch, but it is a doozy. “Big College” (my answer to “big oil”, “big government”, or “big business”) would howl that those who favor cutting federal financial aid are “anti-education” or “anti-poor”. The truth is that schools would become affordable if they had to live on payments from students instead of taxpayers. But just like teachers’ unions howl that “collective bargaining” is “for the kids” instead of a way to support compensation packages above $100,000 for teachers in Wisconsin, “big college” would lose the luxurious lifestyle of college professors and administrators, while providing a better education to a higher number of students.