Just as a doctor does not offer a patient treatment before a diagnosis is made, a policymaker should not try to solve a problem that he does not fully understand. But when it comes to rising education costs, you are more likely to hear a position on student debt cancellation than on the underlying problem: the university is far too expensive. A blind spot to unintended consequences binds the hands of those chosen to solve the problem – the political leaders who do not know that their own ideas helped create this catastrophe.
Since the subprime mortgage crisis, we have not seen such serious ignorance about Murphy’s law, which marked the beginning of the federal government’s stay in yet another credit debacle. Historically, state governments have been the main source of state university funding. Universities, relying on stable budgets for a long time, increased tuition fees to bridge the gap, in part due to state cutbacks due to the 2008 recession. To uphold the story that all citizens must have a university education To thrive in America, the federal government came in to replace the state with university funding.
It is perfectly reasonable to assume that a capital dollar and a DC dollar, which are the same currency, are equivalent. However, in the context of university education, they are very different. State governments finance institutions, the federal government finances individuals through grants and loans. A most dangerous unintended consequence is: student as customer.
Consider a university that is solidly funded by the state to understand the resulting snowball effect. A professor can accurately assess students without fear of administrative retaliation, as tuition fees play a small role in budget. A competitive, emotionless educational environment with high academic results is established and unsuccessful students can move on to another industry without breaking the bank. Contrast this with a university poorly funded by the state, populated by students whose overwhelming federal loans are paying ever-increasing tuition and fees. Professors who fail to make it to students risk administrative resistance. Low performance is tolerated as part of keeping the business going – the customer is always right.
But a university is not a business. It lacks corrective feedback mechanisms like private industry where inferior products are improved to maintain competitiveness. Universities do not compete in markets; they are arranged by levels of funding for research and other measures separate from education.
If the student is a customer, he must be served as a customer. New lecture halls with ornate architecture, elaborate dormitories and cozy safe spaces promise an experience, not an education. Appetite grows for expensive non-teaching staff – administrators, fundraisers, social justice authorities – who provide institutional support (read: customer support). The focus is shifting from performance to recruiting, and lowered standards are holding students to keep cash flow up. Programs emerge on campus using sham grants to milk the federal cash cow, radicalizing everything they touch.
Meanwhile, society is forcing students to attend college regardless of the cost. Those who buy in owe Uncle Sam an arm and a leg for the privilege. States must restore responsibility for carefully shaping their schools, rather than leaving the door open for Washington to do so.