Bob Barr's Campus Comedy


Bob Barr, former congressman and Libertarian Party presidential candidate, is critical of the Obama Department of Education's effort to impose a "gainful employment" measure (which would assess how well graduates are doing in the job market) on for-profit colleges that get federal assistance. Noting that Barr teaches constitutional law at the for-profit John Marshall School of Law in Atlanta, CampusProgress.org editor Kay Steiger says he's letting the professional affiliation get in the way of libertarian principle:

At its base, the "gainful employment" regulations issue is about curbing wasteful spending – the regulations promise to cut federal funding from programs that leave students with high default rates or too much debt compared with their earnings. While Campus Progress has been focused on eliminating spending for bad programs to ensure more aid to successful programs, curbing government subsidies more generally is something libertarians normally get behind. In fact, in 2005 the libertarian think tank Cato Institute released a study in which they argue, "Rather than expand the current system, Congress should consider a phase-out of federal assistance to higher education over a 12-year time frame."

Barr seems to have abandoned his libertarian ideas in this case, where the interests of his employer are at stake.

Although opposing federal pork for colleges is certainly a libertarian position, the issue here is not ending that spending (an option that is not on the table and probably won't be in this life). Rather, Barr and other advocates for for-profit schools – an ideological potluck that includes Rev. Al Sharpton and former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial – are questioning whether for-profits should be subjected to a level of scrutiny that other schools are spared. "Curbing wasteful spending" is a laudable goal, but the bulk of federal pork gets sucked up by public schools and private non-profits. The question – beyond whether graduates' job performance is a fair measure of a school's subsidy-worthiness – is why the gainful employment standard is not being applied across the board. I have made the case that applying the standard only to for-profits is somewhat justifiable, but the question is legitimate. (See this comment from R C Dean for an opposing view.)

Barr's interest in defending for-profit schools has gotten some controversy lately. But he can object to prejudicial treatment by the Department of Ed without betraying libertarian principle – so long as he acknowledges that the Department of Ed itself should be abolished.

Reason's 2008 interview with candidate Barr.