Smash the System?

Career College Central Summary:

  • Ask liberals why college is getting so expensive, and they’ll probably tell you it’s a case of government neglect. States have cut education funding. Federal Pell Grants for low-income students haven’t kept up with the cost of tuition. Regulators have failed to crack down on predatory for-profit schools that charge high prices for sometimes worthless degrees.
  • Ask conservatives the same question, and they’ll tell you the opposite. The real problem, they’ll say, is a pernicious case of government coddling. The unlimited supply of federal student loans has allowed schools to hike their prices to stratospheric heights without driving away undergrads. Feds have smothered low-cost competition by turning higher education into one big highly protected “cartel,” as Utah Sen. Mike Lee put it in an essay for The Federalist.
  • How so? In order for their students to receive federal aid, colleges and vocational programs need to be accredited. The accrediting agencies, which are independent of the government, mostly give their blessing to schools that look an awful lot like traditional institutions of higher education, with brick-and-mortar buildings, well-credentialed faculty, and a nice mission statement. (No sarcasm intended: They really do care about mission statements.) Sure, these schools might offer online courses. But for the most part, the argument goes, the accreditation process helps perpetuate a fairly expensive model for students and prevents any radical and inexpensive experiments from lifting off. That’s both because almost nothing in higher ed can survive without some access to federal aid dollars—even if students are enrolled in free programs, they need to cover living expenses—and because other colleges won’t accept transfer credits from nonaccredited institutions.
  • What do Republicans want to do about it? Smash the cartel, of course. “As was the case for airlines, trucking, and telecommunications, higher education needs a deregulatory agenda that breaks down these barriers to entry,” the American Enterprise Institute’s Andrew Kelly wrote in the reform conservative manifesto “Room to Grow.” In January, Lee introduced legislation that would give states a major role in the accreditation process. The bill has nods of approval from potential presidential contenders Marco Rubio, who has his own proposal on the issue, and Paul Ryan, who dedicated a little-discussed section of his anti-poverty plan to “shaking up the accreditation status quo.”

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