Just as a physician does not offer treatment to a patient prior to a diagnosis, a decision maker should not seek to solve a problem that they do not fully understand. Yet when it comes to the rising costs of education, one is more likely to hear a position on student debt cancellation than on the underlying problem: college is far too expensive. A blind spot for unintended consequences ties the hands of those chosen to solve the problem – political leaders who are unaware that their own ideas helped create this catastrophe.
Since the subprime mortgage crisis, we have not seen such ignorance of Murphy’s Law, marking the start of the federal government’s stay in yet another lending debacle. Historically, state governments have been the primary sources of funding for public universities. Universities, long reliant on stable budgets, have raised tuition fees to bridge the gap, in part because of cuts caused by the 2008 recession. Seeking to support the narrative that all citizens must have made university studies to thrive in America, the federal government rushed to supplant the state by funding universities.
It is perfectly reasonable to assume that a state capital dollar and a Washington dollar, being the same currency, are equivalent. In the context of university education, however, they are quite distinct. State governments fund institutions, the federal government funds individuals through grants and loans. The most dangerous unintended consequence results: the student as the client.
To understand the snowball effect that ensues, consider a heavily publicly funded university. A teacher can accurately assess students without fear of administrative retaliation since tuition fees play a small role in the budget. A competitive and impartial educational environment with high academic results is established, and students who fail can move on to another profession without breaking the bank. Compare that to a poorly funded, state-funded university populated by students whose crushing federal loans are paying increasingly steep tuition and fees. Professors who fail students risk an administrative backlash. Poor performance is tolerated as part of maintaining the business – the customer is always right.
But a university is not a business. It does not have corrective feedback mechanisms like private industry, where substandard products are improved to maintain competitiveness. Universities do not compete in markets; they are categorized according to research funding levels and other parameters unrelated to education.
If the student is a client, he must be served as such. Gracefully architecturally new conference rooms, elaborate dormitories, and comfortable safe spaces promise an experience, not an education. Appetites are growing for expensive non-teaching staff – administrators, fundraisers, social justice authorities – who provide institutional support (read: customer support). The focus shifts from performance to recruiting, and lowered standards hold students back to maintain cash flow. Programs are emerging on campus using scholarships to milk the federal cash cow, radicalizing everything they touch.
Meanwhile, society is forcing students to attend college, regardless of the cost. Those who buy owe Uncle Sam an arm and a leg for this privilege. States must restore responsibility for carefully shaping their schools, instead of leaving the door open for Washington to do so.
Dakota Roberson is an engineer and educator in Idaho Falls.