The following is adapted from a speech delivered in Atlanta, Georgia, on October 28, 2011, at a conference on “Markets, Government, and the Common Good,” sponsored by Hillsdale College’s Center for the Study of Monetary Systems and Free Enterprise.
I have chosen to focus on K-12 because everyone agrees that K-12 education leaves much to be desired in this country and that it is reasonable to hold the government’s feet to the fire when there is no evidence that K-12 education has improved. When we turn to post-secondary education, there is much less agreement on first principles.
The bachelor of arts degree as it has evolved over the last half-century has become the work of the devil. It is now a substantively meaningless piece of paper—genuinely meaningless, if you don’t know where the degree was obtained and what courses were taken. It is expensive, too, as documented by the College Board: Public four-year colleges average about $7,000 per year in tuition, not including transportation, housing, and food. Tuition at the average private four-year college is more than $27,000 per year. And yet the B.A. has become the minimum requirement for getting a job interview for millions of jobs, a cost-free way for employers to screen for a certain amount of IQ and perseverance. Employers seldom even bother to check grades or courses, being able to tell enough about a graduate just by knowing the institution that he or she got into as an 18-year-old.
So what happens when a paper credential is essential for securing a job interview, but that credential can be obtained by taking the easiest courses and doing the minimum amount of work? The result is hundreds of thousands of college students who go to college not to get an education, but to get a piece of paper. When the dean of one East Coast college is asked how many students are in his institution, he likes to answer, “Oh, maybe six or seven.” The situation at his college is not unusual. The degradation of American college education is not a matter of a few parents horrified at stories of silly courses, trivial study requirements, and campus binge drinking. It has been documented in detail, affects a large proportion of the students in colleges, and is a disgrace.
The Department of Education, with decades of student loans and scholarships for university education, has not just been complicit in this evolution of the B.A. It has been its enabler. The size of these programs is immense. In 2010, the federal government issued new loans totaling $125 billion. It handed out more than eight million Pell Grants totaling more than $32 billion dollars. Absent this level of intervention, the last three decades would have seen a much healthier evolution of post-secondary education that focused on concrete job credentials and courses of studies not constricted by the traditional model of the four-year residential college. The absence of this artificial subsidy would also have let market forces hold down costs. Defenders of the Department of Education can unquestionably make the case that its policies have increased the number of people going to four-year residential colleges. But I view that as part of the Department of Education’s indictment, not its defense.