Scott Rasmussen: Revenue addiction is destroying higher education
Higher education news is often dominated by troubling statistics and anecdotes. Whether it’s ever-rising costs, staggering student loan debt, sexual assaults, binge drinking, lower standards or other issues, concerns about American colleges are higher than ever before.
These issues are just the tip of the iceberg and cannot be solved until we address an issue hidden far beneath the surface. Federal dollars have become the single largest source of funding for higher education, and schools are addicted to the revenue. There are 4,706 colleges throughout the land. Frighteningly, 4,704 of them accept federal loans to help students cover the cost of tuition. Only two schools have maintained their independence.
All that money comes with strings attached, because every school that accepts federal funding also accepts federal regulation. The Higher Education Compliance Alliance recently reported “there is every reason to believe that compliance requirements will present formidable challenges for institutions of higher education for years to come.”
A bi-partisan Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education reported “Oversight of higher education by the Department of Education has expanded and evolved in ways that undermine the ability of colleges and universities to serve students and accomplish their missions.” As if that wasn’t enough:
The compliance problem is exacerbated by the sheer volume of mandates — approximately 2,000 pages of text — and the reality that the Department of Education issues official guidance to amend or clarify its rules at a rate of more than one document per work day. As a result, colleges and universities find themselves enmeshed in a jungle of red tape, facing rules that are often confusing and difficult to comply with. They must allocate resources to compliance that would be better applied to student education, safety, and innovation in instructional delivery. Clearly, a better approach is needed.
Accepting federal dollars ultimately means that colleges must pay more attention to keeping federal bureaucrats happy rather than serving students. After all, the bureaucrats have the power to cut off their funding. As a result, 4,704 colleges throughout the United States have agreed to run their schools according to a centralized set of rules written in Washington, DC.
It’s no coincidence that as centralized control has grown, the problems associated with higher education have increased. Among other things, programs designed to give lower-income Americans a better chance have had exactly the opposite effect. Cornell’s Suzanne Mettler reports that federal programs have actually increased inequality and “sabotaged the American Dream.”
To free American higher education from the clutches of Washington bureaucrats, we must develop more diverse sources of academic funding. We should want some schools to be funded privately or by tuition alone. Some could be subsidized by communities and states. We could once again launch successful alternatives to insure funding for low-income students to attend.
With funding from a wide variety of sources, schools would no longer be forced to follow one-size-fits-all rulings from Washington. They would be free to experiment with different approaches to the challenges of campus life. The competition and pragmatic experimentation would keep costs down, safety up, and standards high.
To improve higher education, therefore, the starting point must be freeing the 4,704 schools from their addiction to federal money.