Making College More Affordable (and Less PC)

Outside of the 50 or so top schools, American higher education is troubled. This is especially true as tuition soars and students receive diplomas of questionable value. In 2014, for example, the average bill at a private college for tuition plus room and board was $42,419; at a public school the tab was $18,943. And the long-term trend is for even larger increases. Meanwhile, in 2013 students typically graduated with $28,400 in debt they can scarcely pay back while many have difficulty finding decent jobs thanks to “expertise” in gender studies and similar empty calorie majors.  

Fear not, however, Hillary Clinton has a rescue plan. The gist of her solution is a $350 billion ten year infusion of federal funds for both public universities and students struggling to pay off loans (they could only re-finance the loans). About $175 billion would go to states to free students from having to borrow to finance their education. In exchange for the infusion, recipient states would be obligated to boost their higher ed spending and (somehow) slow the rate of tuition increases. Funding would come from capping the value of itemized tax deductions of the wealthy. Tougher rules would be imposed on for-profit institutions while schools that serve low-income and minority students would receive financial assistance. Lastly, there would be greater transparency regarding graduation rates. All and all, open the flood gates for ever more college education, though the value of the degree is increasingly being questioned.

This plan is doomed even if Hillary is elected. It fails to address the meager employment prospects of many of today’s graduates and it is hard to imagine Republicans in Congress voting for a tax-the-rich scheme that so obviously rewards a major Democratic constituency. Hillary is just pandering and ineptly so.

But the good news is that many of the cost problems bedeviling our colleges are reversible if there is sufficient political will.

Let’s start with soaring tuition. This cannot be fixed by handing out yet more Washington subsidies. After all, tuition has climbed as federal funds to college students similarly climbed. A far better solution is to cut tuition cost and this is hardly rocket science; hundreds of profitable corporations regularly slash costs and these lessons can be applied to universities.

Think of students as consumers over-charged for a shoddy degree. Fortunately, such excesses have long been covered by consumer protection laws. Just as the government now regulates telecommunication fees, it should enact legislation requiring schools to disaggregate their services so financially hard-pressed students, like Verizon customers, can buy a barebones “education only” plans. Outside cost accountants can determine the price of this “academic only” option and thus free students from forcibly subsidizing dormitory housing, meal plans, recreational facilities, activity fees (including expensive speaker fees), healthcare, and all of today’s university mandated social engineering (e.g., mandated workshops on the joys of diversity). My guess is that few students want these imposed frills and left to their own, would save thousands per year while the PC infrastructure would go into the dustbin of history.  

Then schools should be required to hire an experienced corporate cost cutter (see here) and perhaps pay them a commission for eliminating waste. For example, many schools supply expensive remedial education to their troubled admittees. What about requiring youngsters pay for their previous sloth but now permit outside firms to bid on these services? So, rather than State U tutoring semi-literate John, he will buy his literacy lessons via the Internet from a low-cost private provider (and out-of-pocket payments might even motivate him to learn). Meanwhile, students would no longer be required to buy expensive dead tree textbooks thanks to having all books available as e-books (schools might have to subsidize publisher royalties but think of the money saved by scaling back college bookstores). A once $75 chemistry book could now go for $5. Actually, this is already happening and many books are free. Similarly, the school’s library can be drastically slimmed down by developing networks for costly reference books, specialized research librarians and Google Books.

What about giving students first crack at campus jobs? Surely they can mow lawns or flip burgers. Berea College has long used this no-brainer policy and students pay zero tuition.  

Now for the Mother of All Cost-cutting measures: permit students to take a specified number of credits from free on-line courses offered by top universities.  The website for Coursera ( is a gateway to free courses offered by some of America’s most prestigious universities (e.g., Princeton, Columbia, Johns Hopkins) and these options would be especially helpful to financially troubled colleges who can barely afford instructors in the sciences and other expensive specialties. With this alternative in place, even the basic option plan would fall in price and instruction quality would likely improve.

This take-the-courses-online idea is hardly radical. Nearly all schools permit a limited number of outside courses to be imported and counted toward the degree. The University of Illinois-Urbana where I taught for 28 years even allowed transfer credit from academically iffy community colleges, so there should be no problem permitting the transfer of coursework credit from Princeton. And surely some low-cost option can be worked out to test students on this on-line material before the credit is entered in the transcript (perhaps Indian or Chinese firms can bid on this testing).

Now for positive steps to prevent government subsidizing yet more PC grievance majors. Return to the policy of the 1958 National Defense Education Act (NDEA). The NDEA was passed in response to the Soviet Union launching Sputnik 1 and provided loans to help students in math, science, area studies and foreign languages (but not Greek and Latin). Graduate fellowships helped expand the pipeline of professors in the sciences. Money was also allocated to identify via standardized testing talented youngsters in science and math. That the US quickly over-took the Soviets in the space race suggests that the NDEA performed its mission.

Clearly, there is no reason why today’s help with higher education cost cannot be selective. Do we really need federal subsidies for Media Studies or even Sociology?  Might the $350 billion that Hillary wants to spend across the board be instead allocated to upgrading physics laboratories? Yes, as every cliché infected politician will intone, higher education is the pathway to economic growth but why subsidize mediocre schools that lavish funds on remedial education and over-paid Deans of Diversity and Inclusion?

Now for the bad news. America’s higher education is not exclusively about instructing smart youngsters in what the economy needs. It is also a Leftist boondoggle where thousands of Democrat-voting Ph.D.’s put bread on the table teaching useless subjects to easily indoctrinated students who really don’t belong in college. Don’t believe the Left’s rhetoric about America needing “world class” universities. Yes, we really do need such a system, but the Hillarys of the world are not about to achieve this aim.