The presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have each proposed plans during their campaigns to funnel federal and state funds to public institutions so that needy students (under Clinton’s plan) or all students (under Sanders’s plan) could receive a free or very-low-cost college education. If these plans gain serious traction, both public and private colleges below the top tier should be alarmed.
Having spent most of my career in state universities, I firmly believe that states need to support public universities as an incontrovertible public good and that the devastating cuts of recent years should be restored. However, if state institutions become free or close to free through federal subsidies, many small private colleges will have to close their doors.
That’s because they will simply not be able to compete with the nearly free education offered at a state university down the road. My own institution, Emory & Henry College, in central Appalachia, like many small private colleges in economically challenged regions, vies directly with regional state universities for students who can barely afford any kind of college. The high sticker price of private colleges in our region is discounted so heavily that the true cost is not much different from what regional state universities charge, which is of course an unsustainable funding model for colleges that do not benefit from state subsidies.
These same concerns don’t affect elite private colleges, which can attract students who pay near the sticker price, or have relatively unlimited endowments to subsidize costs. The closing of small private colleges like mine, however, would greatly reduce choices for students, destroy centuries of tradition, and cause economic harm to already stressed regions.
The Clinton plan offers some acknowledgment of this problem by proposing grants to private colleges with modest endowments that serve a majority of Pell-eligible students. But her plan, Sanders’s plan, and related ones proposed by others focus mostly on debt-free education at public universities.
This may appear to be a protectionist argument from a private-college point of view, but public institutions should be equally wary of the Clinton and Sanders plans. Further federalizing higher-education accountability — which is an inevitable corollary of either plan — would very likely lead to more of the gross formulae for college rankings that the Obama administration originally failed to impose, as well as requirements for short-term work-force development and a neglect of basic research, humanities, the arts, and other learning that does not have an obvious short-term return on investment.
If anyone needs evidence for what happens when our government fully controls free education, just look at the public-school system in this country, with the emphasis on short-term memory tested constantly, the neglect of long-term project-based education, and the devaluing of the arts and physical education, despite all the research (and the intuition of any good teacher) on what works. Those consequences for public colleges might actually help institutions like mine, since we could provide an alternative somewhat less hampered by federal oversight (though we are still subject to the federal financial-aid carrot and stick). But they would be bad for the country.
The obvious solution is to give more federal money to the students, not the institutions. If the Pell Grant program were restored to a funding level that would allow it to fulfill its original purpose — to provide a realistic foundation for financial aid — then the educational marketplace could respond to students’ and families’ choices and the diversity and vitality of our great regional public and private colleges could be preserved. (The maximum Pell Grant has not increased appreciably in dollars adjusted for inflation since it first became widely available, in 1976.)
The fact that this is not the obvious solution is a testament to our partisan divide. The Republicans won’t propose it because it would require raising taxes in order to give money to poor people — that looks too much like welfare. The Democrats won’t propose it because, although they have no problem with raising taxes, they don’t want to give up federal control over the educational marketplace.
This is not an indictment of government-controlled education — it works fairly well in some European countries — just of how our government has handled accountability in education under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Our government tends to invest in systems (No Child Left Behind, federal regulations, and ratings systems), not people, despite our founding tenets based on Enlightenment principles of individuality.
Why not be true to our founding principles and invest in students themselves, giving them choices among a diverse array of institutions, while holding all institutions — public and private — accountable for transparency in how we present ourselves, so that families can put their government-subsidized dollars where they serve students the best?
Author Bio: David P. Haney is vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty at Emory & Henry College.