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Government Interference and Unintended Consequences in Higher Education November 19, 2006

Posted by federalist in Economic Policy, Education, Government Spending.

Larry Arnn, President of Hillsdale College, came out with an excellent essay detailing the havoc wrought by the federal government’s foray into the market for higher education.  Worth reading in full, but highlights are excerpted here:

Since September 11, 2001, defense spending has risen 47 percent, while higher education spending has risen 133 percent. There are major increases in most higher education programs, especially those regarding need-based aid.

The people they mean to help are not better off, but the colleges are.

The second great concern animating federal education policy is the … notion that once upon a time, in the 1950s, the Soviet Union fired a rocket into space before the U.S. did, and so the federal government began funding higher education, and because of that we had a great coordinated national effort and became the leaders in science and technology. Secretary Spellings tells this story often. It is the same story that was told back at the time of Sputnik, and it was used effectively to justify passage of the original Higher Education Act.

This story is nice, but it cannot be true. Sputnik went up in 1957, after Americans had invented the telephone, the laser, the transistor, done half the work to discover DNA, settled a continent, covered it with railways, roads, airports, and communications. We managed to do all of this without the Department of Education. Federal aid to higher education started in small ways a year after Sputnik. We landed on the moon in 1969, twelve years later, barely time to get an undergraduate degree and then a Ph.D. No student funded even in the first year can have played an important part in the moon landing. It is not possible that federal aid to education had a decisive impact on the space race. Nor is it possible that our race with the central planners in Moscow was won by duplicating their methods. The genius of the American people lies elsewhere.

[T]here are two things that need doing, neither of them proposed so far during this reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The first is that we should return control of college to private people to the utmost extent possible. The federal government should do what Reagan suggested: go back to the things it has the constitutional power to do. As it withdraws, it should mimic the great acts of education support from our past, the Northwest Ordinance and its companion, the Land Ordinance of 1785, and the Morrill Act signed by Lincoln. It should decentralize authority to the states. Or even go one better: Let taxpayers keep their money, if they are prepared to spend it for something so vital to the public interest as education.

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