This growth in subsidies, Mr. Vedder argues, has fueled rising prices: “It gives every incentive and every opportunity for colleges to raise their fees.”
Many colleges, he notes, are using federal largess to finance Hilton-like dorms and Club Med amenities. Stanford offers more classes in yoga than Shakespeare. A warning to parents whose kids sign up for “Core Training”: The course isn’t a rigorous study of the classics, but rather involves rigorous exercise to strengthen the glutes and abs.
Or consider Princeton, which recently built a resplendent $136 million student residence with leaded glass windows and a cavernous oak dining hall (paid for in part with a $30 million tax-deductible donation by Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman). The dorm’s cost approached $300,000 per bed.
Universities, Mr. Vedder says, “are in the housing business, the entertainment business; they’re in the lodging business; they’re in the food business. Hell, my university runs a travel agency which ordinary people off the street can use.”
Don’t forget about all the bureaucratic overhead:
Colleges have also used the gusher of taxpayer dollars to hire more administrators to manage their bloated bureaucracies and proliferating multicultural programs. The University of California system employs 2,358 administrative staff in just its president’s office.
“Every college today practically has a secretary of state, a vice provost for international studies, a zillion public relations specialists,” Mr. Vedder says. “My university has a sustainability coordinator whose main message, as far as I can tell, is to go out and tell people to buy food grown locally…Why? What’s bad about tomatoes from Pennsylvania as opposed to Ohio?”
And as I asserted without any facts, it’s not as if all this government aid is helping results:
Today, only about 7% of recent college grads come from the bottom-income quartile compared with 12% in 1970 when federal aid was scarce. All the government subsidies intended to make college more accessible haven’t done much for this population, says Mr. Vedder. They also haven’t much improved student outcomes or graduation rates, which are around 55% at most universities (over six years).
Also, the same moral hazard problem I mentioned:
He adds that the president’s approach “creates a moral hazard problem. What it signals to current and future loan borrowers is that I don’t have to take these repayment of loans very seriously. . . . I don’t have to worry too much about getting a high-paying job.” It encourages “sociology and anthropology majors compared with math and engineering majors.”
I don’t mean to beat the dead horse here, but even more agreement from Richard Vedder:
Innovation, he says, is being driven by entrepreneurs like Stanford computer science Prof. Sebastian Thrun, who founded the for-profit company Udacity that offers “massive open online courses” (MOOCs). Mr. Thrun began teaching artificial intelligence, first at Stanford and then at Udacity. Mr. Vedder notes that he quickly got “200,000 people to sign up for it. And it’s a great course and people are learning like crazy.”
Where the government can help, Mr. Vedder says, is to get out of the way of progress and encourage slow-moving accreditors to allow innovations to move forward more rapidly. But ultimately, the way to improve college affordability is for the government to disinvest in higher ed and wean students from subsidies.
It’s time to rethink how we do higher education, and changing who pays fixes nothing. We need to fix the true cost of education (and no, price ceilings also don’t fix anything).