Democrats Battle to Bail-Out Higher Ed

AP Photo / Heather Ainsworth

The early innings of the battle for the Democrat nomination are quickly turning into a debate on making college “affordable.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist, says the nation should scrap tuition and fees for public universities. The frontrunner for the nomination, Hillary Clinton, has unveiled her own plan to “erase college debt.” It is a conventional mix of no-interest loans and federal grants to cover the cost of tuition.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (you may remember he’s also running for President) has his own plan that basically orders state college tuition lower and offers another mix of no-interest loans and grants.

All the Democrat candidates’ plans quibble over how one pays for college, rather than looking at the higher education system itself. In many ways, the Democrats’ plans for college are similar to the party’s approach on any policy issues. Their debates, whether the issue is health care or housing, are over who will pick up the tab for the policy, not whether the underlying challenge itself needs reform or change.

Democrats, speaking simply, are high-priests of the status quo. On education especially, whether elementary, secondary or college, the party’s position is always to spend more money on an existing system and, as much as possible, remove the direct costs of a program from those using the services.

The federal Department of Education was created in 1979. The federal Pell Grant program, which was among the first national programs awarded tuition grants to the broad general public also came into being then.

Since that time, the cost of college tuition has increased almost 1,200 percent. This is twice the rate of increase in health care in that time. It is also five times higher than the price of food or general inflation. It is an unsurprising consequence that the cost of higher education exploded at exactly the moment the federal government became involved in financially supporting it and partially defraying its costs.

A factor in the explosion in the cost of college is the increase in school administrators, rather than professors or instructors. Since 1993, the number of school administrators has risen more than two times as fast as teachers.

A similar phenomenon is plaguing elementary education. In the last 20 years, the number of administrators in the nation’s K-12 school system has increased 2.3 times faster than the number of students. Over the last several decades, the number of administrators in the elementary and secondary education system has increased 700 percent.

Facing these basic data-points, a more serious policy proposal would first ask whether or not our education system itself was in need of reform. Asking whether an existing system, especially one delivered in large part by government employees, is in need of reform is kryptonite to a Democrat politician. Their preferred policy approach is to craft some new program to make other people pay for the failed policies.

Make no mistake, education policy, at every level in this country, is a failed policy. Despite trillions in new spending devoted to the system over the last several decades, our outcomes have become worse.

The most interesting new policy development in higher education recently was from former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Four years ago, he challenged the state’s university system to develop an undergraduate degree that would cost just $10k. Note, he didn’t simply order that tuition for the degree be set at $10k, or pursue a policy that would cap the student’s cost at $10k. After all, he isn’t a Democrat. He simply asked the university system to craft a degree program that could be fulfilled at the reduced cost.

Perry’s plan was laughed at. A leading Democrat in Texas called the plan “preposterous.” Today, though, Perry’s plan is becoming a reality. At least 11 universities in Texas offer such a degree. Universities in Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma and Oregon, among others, are pursuing similar programs.

Perry’s plan contains two very radical notions. First, that given the enormous innovations in telecommunications, colleges can develop a low-cost degree program. Second, that, with such an innovation, virtually everyone can afford to earn a bachelor’s degree without the assistance or dictates of federal politicians.

Unfortunately for Democrats, that is an idea so radical its time may have come.