Just as a physician doesn’t offer a patient treatment before a diagnosis, a policymaker shouldn’t seek to solve a problem they don’t fully understand. Yet, when it comes to rising education costs, one is more likely to hear a position on student debt forgiveness than on the underlying problem: College is far too expensive. A blind spot for unintended consequences ties the hands of those chosen to fix the problem — the political leaders who are unaware that their own ideas helped create this catastrophe.
Not since the sub-prime mortgage crisis have we seen such grave ignorance of Murphy’s Law, marking the beginning of the federal government’s sojourn into yet another loan debacle. Historically, state governments had been primary sources of state university funding. Universities, long dependent on stable budgets, increased tuition to bridge the gap, partially from state cuts caused by the 2008 recession. Looking to uphold the narrative that all citizens must be college-educated to thrive in America, the federal government swooped in to supplant the state in funding universities.
It’s perfectly reasonable to assume a dollar from the state capitol and a dollar from D.C., 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. A most dangerous unintended consequence results: student as customer.
To understand the ensuing snowball effect, consider a university robustly funded by the state. A professor can accurately evaluate students without fear of administrative reprisal since tuition plays a small role in the budget. A competitive, dispassionate educational environment with high academic outcomes is established, and unsuccessful students can move on to another trade without breaking the bank. Compare this to a university weakly funded by the state, populated by students whose overwhelming federal loans pay ever-expanding tuition and fees. Professors who fail students risk an administrative backlash. Low performance is tolerated as part of maintaining the business — the customer is always right.
But a university is not a business. It has no corrective feedback mechanisms like private industry, where inferior products are improved to maintain competitiveness. Universities do not compete in markets; they are ranked by research funding levels and other metrics untethered to education.
If the student is a customer, they must be served as one. New lecture halls with graceful architecture, elaborate dorms and cozy safe spaces promise an experience, not an education. The appetite grows for expensive non-teaching staff — administrators, fund-raisers, social justice authorities — who provide institutional support (read: customer support). Focus shifts from performance to recruitment, and lowered standards retain students to maintain cash flow. Programs emerge across campus using make-believe scholarship to milk the federal cash cow, radicalizing all they touch.
Meanwhile, society compels students to attend college, no matter the cost. Those who buy in owe Uncle Sam an arm and leg for the privilege. States must reestablish responsibility for carefully shaping their schools, instead of leaving the door open for Washington to do so.