NEW YORK MAGAZINE: How Republicans Learned to Love Colleges

Career College Central Summary:

  • Of all the ideas “reform conservatives” have come up with, the most promising is overhauling higher education. Haphazard and increasingly expensive federal subsidies for college education offer one of the few areas where the Republican party’s political need to address the economic insecurities of the working class can be accomplished without betraying the conservative movement’s anti-government impulses.
  • In some ways, college subsidies work like fee-for-service medicine, which pays doctors and hospitals to provide more medical care but not necessarily better health. College tuition subsidies encourage colleges to enroll students, but do not give them an incentive to furnish these students with useful skills. There’s no cost to the providers for a school that fails to graduate a huge proportion of its student body, or leaves them laden with debt — the feds pay the bill, regardless.
  • Reform conservatives propose to stop simply shovelling more tuition subsidies out the door and instead try to create a more functional market, where the customers (prospective students) know what they’re getting, and the suppliers (colleges) have an incentive to provide quality. As conservative reform advocates Ramesh Ponnuru and Yuval Levin have put it, “these ideas are a particularly natural fit for Republican reformers interested in enhancing the market orientation of the higher education sector and offering a clear contrast to Democrats more inclined to simply spend more on the problem, increase the federal role and protect powerful incumbents in higher education who are a significant Democratic constituency.”
  • As a political strategy, though, this laudable policy initiative runs into two problems. The first is that this is already the Obama administration’s higher-education agenda. To be sure, Obama’s higher-education reforms are embryonic, and they are also not the only conceivable way to fulfill the ambition of imposing accountability onto tuition subsidies, but they absolutely follow the same impulse. The administration is creating ways to help prospective students compare the effectiveness of different colleges, and metrics to impose accountability on them.

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