Anticipating his entry into the presidential race, the Washington Post ran a long piece on Texas governor Rick Perry’s ideas about higher education. “A man of grand plans,” the headline warned, “criticized as not sweating the details.”
Are the headline writers at the Post on summer break? Did the temps have to dust off headlines from the Reagan era? Reagan’s ideas were constantly dismissed by the bien pensants as “simplistic.” So anyone who gets tagged as simplistic by the Post gets an immediate benefit of the doubt from me. As Margaret Thatcher said at Reagan’s funeral, “His ideas, though clear, were never simplistic. He saw the many sides of truth.”
So what has Perry done to earn this epithet? He’s taken on the higher-education establishment in Texas. He has proposed — gasp — that Texas’s four-year institutions develop a plan to offer bachelor’s degrees for no more than $10,000.
“Skeptics,” the Post tells us, say that the goal cannot be achieved without sacrificing “academic quality and prestige.” It shows, these same unnamed critics assert, that the governor has a “record of plunging into splashy ventures, at times despite the complexities, constituencies, or sensitivities involved.”
So it’s half-cocked to suggest that universities, even public universities, reduce their fees. But when Barack Obama suggests digging ourselves ever deeper into debt to further subsidize higher education, that’s a complex and nuanced approach? Has President Obama thought deeply about the problem of the higher-education bubble? Has he considered that for decades, the federal government has been subsidizing college and graduate work (through grants and loans) and that as a consequence institutions of higher learning have been jacking up their fees?
Mark Perry has offered a handy chart at The Enterprise blog showing the trend lines for the consumer-price index, housing prices, and college tuition from 1978 to 2011.
Between 1978 and 1997, home prices increased annually at about the same rate as general prices, but then appreciated in value at a faster pace over the next decade. In the ten-year period starting in 1997, home prices increased by 68 percent — or more than twice the 29 percent increase in overall prices. And that home-price appreciation caused an unsustainable housing bubble that burst in 2007 and contributed to the financial crisis of 2008–2009.
During that same 1997–2007 decade in which home prices increased by 68 percent and created a housing bubble, college tuition and fees rose even higher — by 83 percent. In fact, college tuition and fees have never increased by less than 73 percent in any ten-year period back to the 1980s. And in the decades ending in 2009 and 2010, college tuition increased by more than 90 percent. The still-inflating increases in the price of higher education are starting to make the housing bubble look pretty tame by comparison.
In addition to suggesting that tuition be reduced, a panel appointed by Governor Perry suggested that professors were “wasting time and money churning out esoteric, unproductive research.” Shocking. The panel suggested dividing the research and teaching budgets to encourage excellence in both, and introducing merit pay for exceptional classroom teachers.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that students are flocking to colleges and universities in flat, freezing North Dakota to take advantage of lower tuition rates. Enrollment at public colleges has jumped 38 percent in the last decade, led by a 56 percent increase in out-of-state students. Colleges around the nation, the Journal advises, must now compete for a new kind of student: “the out-of-state bargain hunter.”
Admittedly, North Dakota benefited from oil revenue and spent generously on its colleges and universities over the past 12 years. But in a time of straightened circumstances for everyone, how does it not make sense to have colleges and universities compete on price?
President Obama seeks to forestall this commonsense solution by once again increasing government subsidies. Student loans, courtesy of Obama, can now be “forgiven” after 20 years of payment, or after ten years if students choose “public service.” Who pays the difference? You know who.
Just as it seemed to be such a great idea for everyone to own a home, we’ve spent decades subsidizing everyone who wanted to go to college. The result has been an upward spiral of prices, which in turn causes politicians such as Obama to call for more subsidies.
And Perry is the simplistic one?
— Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2011 Creators Syndicate, Inc.