On Senator Kerry’s Higher Education Proposals

Now that we can stop talking about Senator John Kerry as the “presumptive” Democratic nominee, it is worthwhile to take a look at the proposals he has put forth regarding higher education.

The U.S. Constitution does not specifically give the federal government any authority whatsoever in the area of education, higher or lower, and the most radical (but appropriate) thing we could hear from him would be that he favors returning all responsibility for higher education to the states and the people, per the Ninth and Tenth Amendments. No such luck.

Kerry’s higher education ideas offer more of the same kinds of policies and programs that we have had for the last several decades – money and intervention.

First, he wants to provide federal financial assistance to states that keep tuition in their public colleges and universities down, which means increasing no more than the rate of inflation. He would commit $10 billion from Washington to hand out to states which held tuition increases down.

Now, public higher education budgets are “target-rich environments” for cost cutting if politicians wanted to do that. If politicians weren’t afraid of being labeled as “anti-education” for daring to suggest that we could get just as much educational bang by spending fewer bucks more wisely, higher ed budgets could be held down, along with tuition increases. Wouldn’t it be a good thing to give them more of an incentive to do so?

No. That’s because there isn’t necessarily any connection between state spending in higher education and tuition charged to students. Spending could be increasing steeply while tuition was unchanged, a situation that Uncle Sam would reward. On the other hand, if a state that had established extremely low tuition rates – such as North Carolina – decided to increase them “too much,” it would lose out on the federal money.

The problem with low tuition is that it compels the taxpayers of the state to subsidize parents who have children in college. Most of the taxpayers are poorer than are families with college students. Why should other North Carolinians pay taxes so that the sons and daughters of well-to-do Triangle professionals or business executives can attend Chapel Hill or NC State at much less than it costs to provide that education?

Not only is there no constitutional authority for such a federal program, but it would also tend to deter states from more fairly apportioning the cost of their university systems to those who directly benefit from them.

The reason why Senator Kerry wants to use federal spending as a mechanism to keep tuition low is the notion that college is become too expensive for many people. In a recent speech, he said, “At a time when college is more important than ever, too many Americans can’t afford to go.” The supposition that college is more important than ever is very doubtful, but let’s focus on the question of affordability.

Manhattan Institute scholars Jay Greene and Greg Forster recently published a study entitled “Public High School Graduation and College Readiness Rates in the United States.” (Available online at http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/ewp_03htm.) Here’s their conclusion, “By far the most important reason black and Hispanic students are underrepresented in college is the failure of the K-12 education system to prepare them for college, rather than insufficient financial aid or inadequate affirmative action policies.”

Greene and Forster found that in 2000, there were approximately 1.2 million high school seniors who had taken the necessary courses and tests to be eligible for college, and the number of students who enrolled in higher education that year was 1.3 million. That’s right – in their hunger for students, colleges accepted all the students who were eligible, and some who weren’t.

It turns out that the problem of good students being kept out of college for financial reasons is on a par with Big Foot.

Kerry also proposes to spend $300 million a year on a program to increase the number of minority and female students pursuing mathematics and science degrees. Why? Because they’re “underrepresented.” Political pitches like that are just about impossible for liberal politicians to resist.

But why should Americans care about the gender and ethnic composition of math and science students? The decision to pursue a particular field of study and not others is, after all, one that students make carefully. When women and minority students major in fields other than math or science, it’s because they believe that they are better suited to or have better prospects in them. If relatively few women and minority students (not counting Asians as “minority,” of course) choose to go into math or science, why should that be a matter of concern to anyone, much less a problem calling for federal legislation?

What we see here is not a national problem, but just a political calculation that a few additional votes can be had by playing to hard-core egalitarians who believe that there must be something wrong if any cross-section of America is not a perfect “rainbow coalition.”

Presidential candidates always feel that they must have policy ideas on just about everything. Unfortunately, when the federal government gets into terrain where it has no business, those policy ideas do more harm than good.

George Leef (georgeleef@popecenter.org) is the executive director of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.