Feb. 13, 2013
Tired out after a long day of driving to the Berkshires and back, I found little to excite me in the State of the Union.
Just one new caught my attention (well, two if you count increasing the minimum wage):
I ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid. And tomorrow, my administration will release a new “College Scorecard” that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria — where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.
As one who has filled out FAFSA forms for years, I’ve wondered why the feds never ask what you’re studying before awarding financial aid. If there’s a shortage of engineers, why are English majors offered the same grants and loans as science majors? There’s a decent argument that increasing financial aid is a major contributor to the cost of higher education outpacing inflation for more than two decades. Why don’t the feds reward universities that try to keep costs down for all their students?
There are at least two answers to these questions. One is the notion that government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers; every student and every accredited institution should be treated the same. The second is the power of the higher education lobby. Give government more control over where its financial aid is spent, and every college and university president will be on the phone to his congress member within minutes. An email appeal to their donor base to stop this threat to their beloved alma mater would soon follow.
A similar, though not identical, dynamic prevents the government from using its clout as the largest provider of health insurance to rein in health care inflation. As a major funder of higher education, the government should be able to use its clout to restrain college costs.
A “college scorecard” can’t hurt. Too many kids pick a college based on the dining hall food and the cool climbing wall in its fitness center; understanding costs and value are beyond the training of most students and many parents, especially those who didn’t go to college themselves. But I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for Congress to agree to use financial aid to put a lid on higher education costs.