Happy New Year! Time to Get to Work on Higher Ed Reform



Happy New Year!  Happy chance-to-rethink-everything-you’re-doing-and-then…well, it depends on what the re-thinking leads to; but if we’re looking at the world with new eyes, why not train them on the college conundrum?  Why don’t we get serious, in other words, about rising costs and sinking performance at the places young people go to get their minds — or whatever — trained and shaped up?

You have to give Donald Trump credit for rising at least partway to the occasion with proposals that bring to the fore the problem of costs.   The president-elect – not that he hasn’t got plenty else on his mind – has proposed stripping tax-exempt status from hugely endowed schools that fail to keep tuition low and reduce student debt.  Better still, he wants to get government out of the student-loan business.

Meanwhile various states, among them Tennessee, Arkansas, West Virginia, Missouri, and Iowa, prepare to address in various ways the needs they spy in their backyards, having to do often enough with costs that shackle students to the lending institutions of the federal government; the large academic bureaucracies that enlarge those costs; and the increasing mismatches between student needs and academic opportunities.

Interest grows all over the place in the idea of channeling students into lower-cost community or technical colleges whose curricula tend to match the needs of the job market.  Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson wants legislators’ agreement to forego two years’ worth of fees to students in high-demand fields.

If a little reform won’t do you, it may be time to enroll – philosophically — in Richard Vedder University for a reform regimen of the largest and most sophisticated scope.  If Vedder, who directs the Center for College Affordability, ran an actual university, you’d likely want your kids to go there.  As it is, he keeps on coming up with –as in the current Forbes magazine — comprehensive ideas for saving academia by de-federalizing and diversifying it.

Thus he’d voucherize federal student assistance; give colleges “skin in the game” by making them share in loan risks; curb the politicized bullying by the U. S. Education Department;  halt the government and media war on for-profit institutions; promote vocational education; and nail down free speech rights.  Inter alia, as they used to say when universities valued and taught the classics.

It’s not a case, then, of higher-ed reform’s basic implausibility.  There’s plenty of stuff to do – and more stuff to do (as Vedder notes) when you’ve done the basics.  The challenge is getting people to want to do something important but, at the same time, hard and complex.  It’s easier to kick such problems down the road. Of course that means eventually you and they catch up.  And then it’s January 1 again.   And you think, this time?  Maybe?

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