College Heads Are Shocked (2012 Mar)

by Barry A. Liebling

Recently President Obama gave a speech at the University of Michigan where he was cheered by a throng of students. The President proclaimed that higher education is vital to the nation’s well-being, but it is increasingly more difficult for students to afford it. In fact, college tuition has accelerated at an alarming rate for several decades, and students are more likely to incur sizable college loan debts than ever before.

The Michigan students were applauding the speech not only because they idolize President Obama as their all-time favorite. They were heartened by his carrot-and-stick solution which they imagine will benefit them directly. The President proposed rewarding colleges that keep the rate of tuition increases below an “acceptable level” with a new bundle of financial aid. Conversely, colleges that persist in raising tuition above what the government regards as appropriate will not be eligible to participate in the new entitlement.

What President Obama neglected to mention in his speech is what has caused tuition to soar. Although a number of factors contribute to higher student fees, perhaps the largest single contributor is the availability of federal student loans. As government loans became more generous to students, colleges and universities have gobbled up the slack by increasing tuition. This was a cue to federal officials to “help students” by granting ever larger loans which in turn were scooped up by insatiable schools. Note well – whenever the government subsidizes anything costs go up.

Exactly as you would expect, the Republican reaction to the President’s proposal was largely critical. Because this is an election year and because they frequently object to new federal programs several conservative pundits complained that “it isn’t the job of the federal government to punish…schools. It’s very arbitrary.”

The more interesting response came from several top executives at major public institutions of higher learning. They were shocked. How could the President turn his stern gaze on public colleges. Some indicated they were “alarmed” by “the threat of government overreach.” One asserted that the President’s proposal is “political theater of the worst sort,” while another complained that “tying federal support to tuition prices is a product of fuzzy math.”

It is significant that these same executives recently nodded in agreement when the President went after for-profit colleges accusing them of not giving students enough value for the tuition they pay. After all, to mainstream college administrators the very idea of organizing a school for profit is suspicious.

Bear in mind that public college officials are usually even more charmed by President Obama than are their students. Nearly all of them are political supporters of the Democratic party, and a majority regard themselves as “progressives.” Their default position is to endorse an activist government that takes a strong role in solving “social problems” by rewarding “good behavior” and penalizing “behavior that is not in society’s interest.” They see themselves as doing good, and evaluate their own work as vital to the nation and above the reproach of an enlightened government.

How could the Obama administration get tough with the higher education guild that has consistently supported the President’s programs? Is there no gratitude to an elite segment of society that has been one of the President’s most energetic cheerleaders?

Look back at recent history. Before Obama Care was passed most heads of public colleges were enthusiastic advocates of the “reform.” They did not grouse that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was “government overreach.” Surely, health care is both important and complex, and college executives seemed to be comfortable with the government taking the lead role in managing it. Did heads of colleges characterize Obama Care’s claim that it would save money as “fuzzy math?” If there is no problem with the fed attempting to “fix” American health care then it must be acceptable for it to fiddle with college tuition.

When the passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was being debated top college executives did not speak out against it. It is hard to find any of them that complained that gargantuan new regulations of the country’s financial system was “political theater of the worst sort.”

When President Obama accuses private companies of charging their customers too much money do college administrators proclaim that it is not the government’s business to regulate prices? Do they point out that price controls are counterproductive where ever they are employed? If you believe the federal government has a legitimate role in managing prices then college tuition is fair game.

What higher education executives fail to appreciate is that once the “progressive” interventionist beast is unleashed it treads over everything in sight and is not easy to reign in. If they understood this they would not be shocked by the President’s proposal.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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