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Even so-called “private” schools are corrupted by government funding. Princeton University receives vastly more government subsidies per student than the nearby state school, the College of New Jersey. Tax deductions and exemptions (e.g., on capital gains from endowment income) give private schools a privileged status. Federal research dollars with generous overhead allowances add to the fact that prestigious private schools, with a few exceptions such as Hillsdale College, are heavily beholden to the government.
This brief tour de horizon skips some areas of dysfunctionality, such as the vast underutilization of campus facilities, taxpayer-subsidized country club–style recreational centers, and more. So what is the solution?
As long as governments, particularly the one in Washington, heavily subsidize higher education, it is likely that reform efforts will be futile. For starters, we need to get the feds out of the student financial assistance business, and start privatizing state universities. Schools such as the Universities of Virginia, Michigan, and Colorado, where state subsidies amount to very small portions of the budget, would be good places to start looking for reform models. Because start we must.
Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, teaches at Ohio University, and is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Poisoned Feeder Schools
Since 1970, K-12 education spending in the United States has tripled in inflation-adjusted dollars. Yet American 17-year-olds score no higher in reading and math on the National Assessment of Education Progress than they did 40 years ago. The United States ranks second behind Switzerland in education spending for K-12 out of 28 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, yet exactly in the middle of 49 developed and newly-developed countries when it comes to gains made by 4th and 8th graders since 1995, according to a 2012 study by the Harvard-based journal Education Next.
This crisis in public-school productivity has followed American students into higher education. Colleges spend more than $3 billion dollars annually on remedial education, with more than 1.7 million students a year needing help getting up to speed in basic reading, writing, and math. Of the more than 50 percent of students at the community college level who start in remedial courses, fewer than 1 in 10 ever earn a two-year degree. Less than one-third of students who start in remedial classes at four-year colleges ever earn a bachelor’s degree.
If we ever expect to get real value for both the $185 billion in post-secondary student aid each year (49 percent of which came from the federal government in 2012) and the additional $114 billion spent on government and private student loans in 2012, we must first improve the productivity of K-12 education.
Public school choice and competition may be the key. There are now 29 school voucher and tax credit programs and more than 6,000 charter schools in the United States, enrolling nearly 3 million students. School choice has led to the rapid growth of niche schools that focus on college readiness and college credit completion during high school. There are more than 200 Early College high schools that allow students to enroll in college courses during their junior and senior years, with many kids completing a two-year Associates degree even before they graduate from high school. These students save parents and taxpayers the first two years of college tuition.
Many choice schools use college readiness as one of their most important performance metrics. For example, the Alliance for College Ready Public Schools, a group of high-performing charters in Los Angeles, explicitly measures how their students perform on the California State University early assessment exam, which is used to determine which high school grads will need placement in remedial education. The goal is not just to enroll their students in college, but to reduce the number of kids who will need extra help once they get there.
The United States spends more than almost any other country in the world on elementary and secondary education, then we spend money all over again trying to get those students up to college standards after they have already arrived on campus. If we want to improve the quality of higher education we must improve the performance of K-12 education through school choice.
Lisa Snell is the director of education at the Reason Foundation.
The Decline of Liberal Arts
Naomi Schaefer Riley