Please Keep Your Government Hands On My University

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Christopher P. Loss teaches at Vanderbilt University and is the author of "Between Citizens and the State: The Politics of American Higher Education in the 20th Century" (Princeton University Press, 2012).

In the midst of the national shouting match over healthcare reform three years ago, an irate South Carolinian famously stood up and warned then-Representative Robert Inglis (R-SC) to "keep your government hands off my Medicare!” Would it be a surprise to anyone if the next angry citizen to confront her representative was a professor demanding that the federal government keep its hands off her university? 

It’s already happening. Academic leaders’ chilly response to President Obama’s recent call to clamp down on higher education—to link student aid to costs and outcomes—has been loud and clear: Keep your government hands away!

The irony of course is that, like the healthcare sector, the federal government has had its hands all over higher education for a long time—150 years, to be exact. The government gambled on higher education with the passage of the Morrill Land-Grant Act in 1862, creating the country’s publicly supported land-grant system. But it wasn't until World War II that the federal government doubled down on higher education and the cutting-edge research and citizens that it produced, pumping unimagined sums of money into defense research and into the education of returning veterans, leading to even greater public investments in ideas and people later on. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 launched the government into the student loan business; the Higher Education Act of 1965 extended the loan program and added work study and grants to the mix of aid options. Tens of millions of students have relied on these programs to get an education ever since. 

Importantly, federal funds for research and student aid support both public and private institutions—and they always have. At research-intensive, private institutions like the one where I work, three primary revenue streams, each subsidized by the federal government, support its core mission. The medical center is the biggest single revenue source, and we know how large the federal presence is in that arena. Next, there is student tuition revenue and all the grant, work study, and loan dollars that go along with it. Finally, there’s sponsored research. Last year, my school attracted more than $600 million in external support from—you guessed it—the federal government. The combination of funds differs at different schools, but the bottom line doesn’t change: without federal aid many students could not afford an education and many schools could not survive.

Given this history and the billions of dollars that hang in the balance, the real question is why hasn’t higher education been regulated more?

If President Obama gets his way, it might be.

What might a new federal regulatory regime look like? It’s tough to say since there won’t be a plan until later in the month. That it might end up looking like No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the decade-old K-12 regulatory model, is why so many in the higher education community are so worried.
The basics of NCLB are well known—at least to those of us who study education or have a child enrolled in a public school. The states must annually test students in math and reading in grades 3-8, and all students must be “proficient” in these subjects by 2014. Schools that fail to make “annual yearly progress” (AYP) face increasingly severe “corrective actions” that go well beyond wearing a dunce cap—staff can be fired, a new curriculum installed, and longer school days instituted. If improvements aren’t made, failing schools can be taken over by private companies or even closed.

Heavy-handed oversight of this kind would ruin America’s great higher education system. It’s a system with its own brand of homegrown regulation—admission and degree requirements, peer review and tenure, accrediting boards and professional licensure exams—that works very well. It’s a system that offers students a wide range of institutional and price options. And, most important of all, it’s a system whose energy and creativity flow from the freedom it gives faculty and students to think, research, teach, and learn.

But it’s also an immensely costly system that relies on federal money to operate, to do all the humane and important work on which the future of our country depends. That’s the catch: freedom isn’t free; it’s expensive.

And with great freedom comes great responsibility. So, we need to ask ourselves: What responsibility do we have to the people whose tax dollars help support the work we do? What can we do to help students who are rightly concerned about rapidly rising tuition and spiraling loan debt ($25,000 per graduate last year), about graduating (half don’t), and about finding a job (9.1 percent can’t)?   

We can't promise that all students will learn the same amount or in the same way. We can't guarantee all students will graduate. And we certainly can't ensure that all graduates will land a high-paying job. We never have and we never will.  

What the higher education community should do is seriously engage the White House on the one proposal it has made that we know actually works: the "College Scorecard." Unveiled by President Obama a few weeks ago at the University of Michigan, the card could help prospective students make good college choices by providing reliable information about costs and discounts; average debt load and time-to-degree; job placement and earnings; and whether one or both of the students sitting next to them on the first day of class will really be there on the last.

This isn't a "big government" takeover. There doesn’t need to be more bureaucracy or red tape. Academic freedom won’t be jeopardized. Most of this data is already out there, freely available.

Best of all, it works. Research shows that good information can make the difference between a good college choice and a bad one, especially for first-generation college students, for racial and ethnic minorities, and for poor students—that is, the very students most at risk of academic and financial hardship and who face the greatest challenges in accessing the information they need to choose the right school. A well-organized, easy-to-read scorecard would help students navigate the choice process. It’s the right thing to do.

The American higher education system is a public trust. And while state-level appropriations have plummeted in recent years, so far federal support has held steady and, in some areas like Pell Grants, actually grown. We can't afford to let that change. But if we want the public to continue to trust us, and if we want to keep receiving support from the federal hand, we should want to help the public make the wisest college choices it can.

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