Addressing College Debt, Part 1: The Broad Issues First

No one on either side of the political ideological divide denies that over $1 trillion in accumulated college debt is a bad thing.  The differences are in the solutions regarding what we can do now about the existing debt and what we can do about the cost of higher education going forward.  Further, we both agree that a high school education can increase a person’s lifetime earning potential by at least $350,000 and a college education even more.  But, before we talk about solutions, it is necessary to discuss three broad questions.

1. What is the purpose of a college education?  The Left proclaims that colleges exist to educate graduates for “the common good.”  They do so without defining the “common good.”  But, this runs counter to the actual reason colleges exist, at least in the modern sense.  Most of today’s state college systems are the progeny of land grant legislation passed during the Civil War.  Federal land was set aside for states to establish institutes of higher learning focusing on the teaching of practical agriculture, science, military techniques, and technology. The colleges were also tasked with teaching “classical studies.”

The importance of this difference in emphasis cannot be understated.  Prior to land grant colleges, most colleges were private and focused on “the classics” as a means to foster abstract thought.  The goal was not necessarily practical in nature.  The opposite is true with land grant colleges which emphasized the practical use of the courses they were tasked with teaching.

Somewhere along the line, the practical nature of these colleges was transformed or forgotten.  But in the original sense, the common good was the advancement of agriculture, science, technology and military techniques.  Today, the “common good” is a catch-all grab bag of basically anything.  Nothing against the sociology graduate, but practically speaking the engineering or science graduate is more likely to contribute to the tangible common good of all the people.  Thus, the purpose of a college education should be to prepare the graduate for a career so that they may become meaningful members of society and thus contribute to the “common good.”  The Left treats every discipline taught in college equally in terms of a tangible benefit to society which is patently false.

2. Is there a right to a college education?  Despite the best efforts of teachers in lower grades and high school to teach students to become eventual college students, this is simply a lost battle.  Not every high school graduate is college material yet the Left buries their head in the sand and denies this reality.  When not in denial, they blame a score of social factors on the lack of access to a college education.  Of course, this then devolves into admission programs which attempt to make up for these alleged shortcomings disguised as being in the interest of “diversity” which usually then involves preferential treatment for a certain group of people.

The Left likes to criticize Jeb Bush’s reforms called “One Florida” describing it as an insidious attempt to make the Florida college system “more white.”  For example, 20% of the top high school graduates in Florida are automatically admitted to a Florida public college, if they so choose.  The Left argues that the system disproportionately favors white students since the best performing schools in Florida tend to be white, suburban schools.  Their proof is that minority enrollment declined 11% in Florida while it increased 3% nationally.  There are too many variables involved to declare that this phenomena is somehow based on racism.  Perhaps the minority student did not make the cut, or perhaps they decided on a private college or one out of state.  Perhaps black enrollment declined, but Hispanic and Asian enrollment increased.

Simply, there is no “right” or “entitlement” to a college education.  The opposite belief has led to a weakening of admission standards.  Despite protestations to the contrary, the SAT remains the best predictor of college success yet the test is constantly attacked on various grounds and then, succumbing to the pressure from special interest groups, redesigned to make it easier for those who would have been screened out to “pass muster.”  Dumbing down the admission standards serves no one let alone “the common good.”  To wit, virtually every college today offers remedial courses.  If a college student needs remedial courses, they do not belong in college in the first place.

Because there is no right to college should not infer that non-college students cannot be meaningful, productive members of society and contribute to the common good.  There will always be a demand for car mechanics, beauticians, plumbers, electricians and truck drivers.  None of these occupations require a college education and they all pay relatively well.  The Left is big on unions; many of these occupations are even unionized.  This assertion by the Left that everyone “deserves,” “has a right to,” or “is entitled to” a college education is seriously misguided.

3. Are conservative reform attempts crippling higher education?    The poster boy for the Left’s criticism of conservative reforms is Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.   Prior to Scott Walker becoming Governor, the University of Wisconsin was ranked in a tie at 41st among American colleges according to US News and World Report.  After 5 years of Walker’s leadership, the University is still ranked 41st- hardly “crippling.”  But, they declare, his recent $350 million cut to the university system will result in problems in the future.  This is the mantra of the Left: more money solves everything.  Left out of the discussion are two important facts: (1) the $350 million is really $250 million and its spread over two years and (2) tuition for in state students has been frozen at a little over $10,000 for the duration of Walker’s tenure.  I should add a third consideration- the $2.1 billion private endowment the University enjoys.

Even their doomsday complaints that the budget cut will deter qualified faculty from joining the University is rife with doomsday nonsense.  The trend in higher education nationally is towards part-time, non-tenured faculty.  Wisconsin is no different from the national trends.  And apparently the academic standards have not diminished if we are to believe US News and World Report.

What the Left found most egregious is that Walker redefined the college’s mission to more accurately reflect the original meaning of a land grant college.  In fact, the University of Wisconsin-Madison- the college’s flagship campus- was one of the first such land grant colleges being designated such in 1866.  Their hypocrisy is on full display when they criticize that in some areas, control of the system is being concentrated in a Board of Regents and Chancellor’s office rather than diffused across the various campuses.  Isn’t the Left the face of statism and concentration of control?

The number one goal of higher education is preparing the graduate for a career.  If that means educating a nuclear engineer, great.  If it means educating a social worker, great.  But don’t cry when the nuclear engineer is more easily employed while the social worker sleeps in their parent’s basement after graduation.  The Left’s solution- whether expressed by Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders or any other legislator- is based on false premises and beliefs.  Their solutions also cost exorbitant sums of money.  When they talk of a debt-free or just plain free higher education, they should be reminded that nothing is “free.”

Over the next six days, I will present a multi-point program of suggestions to address not only the ticking time bomb that is current student debt, but also ways colleges can reign in costs and lower the cost of higher education for those deserving to be in college in the first place.








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