Our Encroaching Federal Government

During the legislative battle in Congress over the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, one of the more distressing ideas that was included is to use the federal government’s power to compel the states to maintain their current levels of higher education spending. That is, states that cut their higher education spending would be punished by the loss of federal funds. The final version of the bill was hammered out last week and it contains a watered-down “maintenance of effort” provision. Once the bill becomes law, the principle that Washington can tell the states how much to spend on higher education will be set in place.

Good idea or bad?

I think it’s bad, but will first state the case in favor of it as sympathetically as possible.

One proponent of the idea is F. King Alexander, president of California State University at Long Beach. He recently wrote in Inside Higher Education that “The perversity of the present system is that as state legislatures lower their fiscal effort or do not provide adequate support for increasing student populations, tuitions and fees rise, and as a result most federal student aid programs are tapped at higher levels, further indebting ever more students and with greater average debt.”

In other words, the states (some of them, anyway) have been reducing their spending on higher education and increasing tuition and fees to students. Students then (some of them, anyway) have to increase their reliance on federal student loan programs. Alexander thinks that is undesirable and therefore wants to have Congress hold the states’ feet to the fire – cut your higher education spending and suffer the loss of federal money. (In the bill, the penalty amounts to a loss of eligibility for a federal matching grant program that hasn’t yet even been funded. That isn’t much of a disincentive, but the penalty could be made stronger in the future.)

What’s wrong with that?

First of all, the idea that Washington should try to dictate to the states how much they spend on higher education flies in the face of the Constitution. We have – or at least used to have – a concept known as federalism, which says that whatever is not the clear responsibility of the federal government is left to the states or the people. The Tenth Amendment is unambiguous – powers that haven’t been expressly given to the United States are reserved to the individual states or the people. Nowhere in the Constitution is there any mention of a federal role in higher education. It’s supposed to be a matter handled by the states or by private action.

Now, it’s true that Washington has been trampling all over the idea of federalism for many years, but the Constitution does not recognize any governmental equivalent of “squatter’s rights” – something that’s not legal becomes legal if you do it long enough.

Not many people take the Constitution seriously any more. In fact, at least two writers say that it is dead – so let’s consider some other arguments against the “maintenance of effort” idea.

Look closely at Alexander’s argument and you see that the essence of his complaint is that some states have been making it more costly for students to attend public universities. In every state, public universities are subsidized, in some much more so than others. While some of the students who attend schools such as the University of North Carolina, the University of Michigan and Penn State are from fairly poor families, the great majority are not. In truth, public universities are a big subsidy to the middle-class and wealthier families who send their children to them. For most users of public higher education, an increase in tuition is a very small burden.

Therefore, if a state government decides that higher tuition makes good sense because it frees state resources for other things regarded as more beneficial to the entire populace, why should Washington politicians get upset? And if voters in a state that does so are unhappy with the consequences, they are in the best position to push for a policy change, such as increased student aid for students from poor families. That is far better than having federal politicians try to tie the hands of state legislators with regard to higher ed spending.

Finally, what if state officials come to the conclusion that they have overdone things with regard to higher education – that they have over-expanded on schools and are attempting to educate many students who would be better off in some kind of vocational education? In his book Going Broke by Degree, Professor Richard Vedder argued that if states took a careful look at the costs and benefits of higher education spending, they’d conclude that they get negative returns from it. (I reviewed Vedder’s eye-opening book here.)

Congress shouldn’t get in the way of decision-making by state officials who are in the best position to assess the costs and benefits of their educational programs.

Most higher education leaders and politicians have an unshakable belief that college spending should only go in one direction – up. They want to use federal law to keep state spending from ever ratcheting down, but that is just as foolish as if an individual were to say, “I won’t even think about reducing my spending on coffee, no matter what else is happening with my budget.”

People need to be flexible. So do the states. Attempts by Washington to reduce flexibility should be resisted.