Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Crisis of Higher Education

Many of our politicians have it backwards these days. It's not a shame to lose an election. But it is a shame to serve a wrong idea.

Conservatives, when argue for school choice, like to say that elementary and secondary schools should be financed on the same principles as colleges, where student aid follows the student to whichever school he pleases. This is true enough, but it is not the aid alone that follows the student. Title IV of the current Higher Education Act regulates colleges that accept federal financial aid. Title IV includes now more than 300 pages of regulations, and the failure of a senior college official to comply in a material respect can lead to heavy fines and imprisonment.

Since September 11, 2001, defense spending has risen 133%. There are major increases in most higher education programs, especially those regarding need-based aid. Both the amounts available, and the upward limits of the income groups to whom they are available, have risen sharply.

A great concern animating federal education policy is the miserable failures in basic skills, especially math and science but also literacy, of America's high school and college graduates. The national Commission's Draft Report offers an impressive number of ideas for dealing with this crisis. But they are all built on the same notion: that once upon a time, in the 1950s, the Soviet Union fired a rocket into space before the U.S. did, and so the federal government began funding higher education, and because of that we had a great coordinated national effort and became the leaders in science and technology. This story is told often. It is the same story that was told back at the time of Sputnik, and it was used effectively to justify passage of the original Higher Education Act.

This story is nice, but it cannot be true. Sputnik went up in 1957, after Americans had invented the telephone, the laser, the transistor, done half the work to discover DNA, settled a continent, covered it with railways, roads, airports and communications. We managed to do all of this without the Department of Education.


No comments: