Doug Schoen, the former pollster for Pres. Bill Clinton, recently published some important research on the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters (OWSers) now sitting in Manhattan’s Zucotti Park. While he found that the OWSers are mostly radically liberal, and aligning with this group would be politically destructive, there is one issue that some of the protesters stand on that conservatives should agree with. That issue is the cost of education.
RedState had an interesting post linking the OWSers to a discussion of the skyrocketing cost of college tuition and its impact on young adults. (Stephanie Gutmman also commented on this in NRO’s the Corner.) Stories had run indicating that some OWSers were protesting the burden of student loans. Given Schoen’s interview results, this might have been a story line made out of whole cloth to make the protesters more sympathetic when, in fact, they were just a bunch of Marxist twenty-somethings.
Whatever they believe, the RedState item was willing to recognize some legitimacy their dissatisfaction. The underlying problem is real, and the Family Research Council has expressed its concern with the existence of the higher-education racket. From 1982 to 2007 the Consumer Price Index rose 108 percent, but the cost of a four-year college education increased 439 percent during that period. That is an increase of around 6.75 percent annually.
The cost explosion was caused by bloat in an education system that has no effective self-correcting mechanism as long as the government pumps more and more money into student loans. Increasing loan amounts may seem to have been the merciful thing to do, but we should all see by now that loans are really more like the chains Jacob Marley carried when he met Ebenezer Scrooge. Debt is tolerable in modest amounts, but the quantities now on the table will make family formation and home buying very difficult for the young.
American education is defective at the primary and secondary levels, but higher education is also deeply in need of reform as the debt explosion reveals. Federal loans have played a key part here, and the feds may need to reduce federal-loan availability to schools that cannot control costs relative to those that do.
High schools need to teach students and their parents educational economics. We may have eliminated “Home Ec” as a class, but “Ed Econ” should be required in the ninth or tenth grade for those heading to college. Lesson One should be: Consider cheaper alternatives like state schools, community colleges, and online courses whenever possible.
The future may lie with online schools that are willing to compete with brick-and-mortar colleges on price. However, these new institutions will have to be nurtured to survive the onslaught from the educational-industrial-governmental complex. Amazon.com vs. Borders was good for consumers. A similar competitive revolution is needed in higher education, and we have the technology to do it. Think of those great college courses you can buy from the Teaching Company on DVD, CD, or downloads. I can’t imagine any reason that much of college couldn’t be taught similarly. The cost savings would be enormous, but new institutions will be needed to conduct the revolution.
Finally, things have gotten so bad that an astute politician could garner great support from young voters merely by recognizing that this problem exists and by proposing moving education in the direction just described. It is time for a national conversation to begin on this topic, and 2012 is conveniently just around the corner.
— Chris Gacek is a senior fellow at the Family Research Council.