Sunday, March 9, 2014
When Education Secretary Arne Duncan posted a request on the Huffington Post, soliciting questions from college newspapers for an online video chat to be held today (and streamed live on the White House Web site), Colby students responded with three highly professional videos, each posing a provocative question.
• Education question videos, Huffington Post Web site, www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/05/huffpost-college-meets-wh_n_525415.html
• Live chat, 9:15 a.m. today, White House Web site (www.whitehouse.gov), and Huffington Post.
One asked about governmental support for international study; another asked what the Education Department will do to enhance the academic prospects of minority students. A third video, however, was the most provocative. Noting that, “No one should have to pay $200,000 for a college education,” the featured students asked, “What can the government do to cap or regulate the price of a college education in America?”
This is the question I’d really like to see the secretary answer, and here’s what I think he should say: “Great question. I understand that private colleges cost a fortune, and I agree that no one should have to pay $200,000 for a college education. But nobody is compelled to pay that much. No one held a gun to your head and made you go to a private, liberal-arts college. Knowing what it cost, you and all your fellow students chose to go there.
“The idea that the government should step in to limit the prices charged in the marketplace has perennial appeal. But price controls are an arbitrary interference with individual freedom, and they have a long track record of failure. The inevitable effects are shortages, diminishing quality of goods and surreptitious efforts to circumvent the controls. So to your specific question, what should the government do to cap the cost of college, my answer is ‘nothing.’
“But there is something the government can do to lessen the intense pressure that makes so many young people feel that they absolutely must go to an expensive, private college: We can establish an independent series of rigorous, carefully designed, and independently administered examinations that will enable anyone, from any college or none at all, to demonstrate their mastery of the skills and knowledge now taught in college.
“To see why an independent credential of academic achievement would help, consider why fancy private colleges command such a premium price in the marketplace. It’s for many of the same reasons that luxury cars command premium prices.
“The expensive college and the luxury car will both be demonstrably better than their less expensive competitors in a variety of tangible ways. The high-end Lincoln will have a better engine, a more luxurious interior and more sophisticated technology than an entry-level Hyundai. The fancy private college will have a very low student-faculty ratio, small class sizes, outstanding facilities, impressive library collections, spacious and attractive dormitories, restaurant-quality food and many other amenities no public university can match.
“And, like the luxury car, the fancy private college has a prestigious brand name. When you buy a Lincoln rather than a regular Ford, part of what you’re buying is the name. Likewise, when you go to Colby, Bates or Bowdoin rather than the University of Maine, part of what you’re paying for is the brand name.
“With cars, there’s a lot of objective information available about the relative performance of different makes and models. But with colleges, there isn’t. Does the average Colby graduate know more than the average Maine graduate? Does either of them know more than the laid-off mill worker who spent the last year taking every online course he could get access to? As of today, there’s no way to know.
“Many people feel compelled to go to colleges with prestigious names because they suspect — not without some justification — that employers will assume that graduates of institutions with prestigious names are more skilled and knowledgeable than other graduates.
“The establishment of a trusted, independent testing authority and the establishment of widely accepted skill and knowledge credentials will transform higher education by freeing students from the need to attend a brand-name college to acquire a marketable educational credential. The truly self-motivated will be freed to study online or independently and will have a way to demonstrate that their skills equal those of a top graduate from a brand-name school.
“Such tests will be hard to design well and expensive to administer. I know that. But it will be less expensive than trying to make our public universities tangibly equal to the finest private colleges and to make them available to all.
“We plan to begin developing the first such tests immediately.”
Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.