Stop Ignoring Higher Ed Reality

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Like most political discussions, the student aid debate is driven far more by sentiment than reasoned analysis. If we used the latter, we’d be demanding big aid cuts for the sake of students and taxpayers alike.

As I testified to a Senate panel earlier this week, the evidence is powerful that there is massive overconsumption of higher education, and cheap federal aid ultimately fuels the college price skyrocket while encouraging students to tackle programs and debt they often can’t handle.

I won’t go into all the evidence here—you can get much of it in my testimony, and even more in this report—but here are a few of the big points that plead for us to stop the rhetoric and attack the waste:

  • Aid and prices have both increased at breakneck speeds over the last several decades. Growing empirical research shows that this is not an accident—colleges raise their prices to capture the aid—though there is a limit to what research can prove. Fortunately, logic can fill in the rest: People who work at colleges are normal human beings and will take every dollar they can get their hands on. They always have something good—either personally or professionally—they think they can do with it.
  • Inflation is not explained just by state and local budget cuts. Both public and private colleges have seen decades of rampant inflation; total state and local funding to colleges has not dropped during that time; and on a per-pupil basis public schools have raised tuition revenue by roughly $2 for every $1 lost in appropriations.
  • Only 57 percent of first-time, full-time students at four-year colleges finish their programs within six years. Huge numbers of the students we encourage to go to college, including with federal grants and loans, languish there and likely never finish.
  • Roughly one-third of people with bachelor’s degrees are in jobs that don’t require them.
  • Most of the jobs expected to have the biggest growth in the coming decades will not require college attendance, but on-the-job training.

The list could go on, but the point is unmistakable: Talk all you want about the power of education or the future economy; the public dollars we lavish on higher education—including federal student loans with generous terms and interest rates—are largely being squandered, even if with good intentions. Add all this to the nation’s staggering debt, and it is well past time that we stop all the talk and start dealing with reality.

[Editor’s note: See this Cato essay for more on higher education subsidies.]