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The Great Tuition Pander

Obama versus the bursars.

Feb 6, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 20 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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And yet 94 percent of parents expect their children to go to college, according to a Pew Research Center survey last year. At the same time only 22 percent said college was affordable for most people, and 57 percent said “the higher education system in the United States fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend.” With the unemployment rate of college graduates at an all-time high, the failure to provide good value looks even more irresponsible. 

It’s not clear why Republicans have been slow to turn this anxiety to political advantage, aside from the customary cluelessness. A populist crusade against the gluttonous pointy-heads on college campuses is made-to-order. One reason for the hesitation might be demographic. Obama’s proposal plays on an anxiety that is particularly acute in a cohort of voters that Democrats are keen to appeal to: suburban and exurban families who desperately want to send their kids to college but see only difficulty ahead. They don’t make enough money to pay the “sticker price” tuition at selective colleges, and they make too much money to qualify for need-based aid. The president’s jawboning will sound as music through the McMansions of Fairfax County, Virginia, and Henderson, Nevada. 

Republicans find themselves in a different situation. It’s become a commonplace to note that working-class whites are now the most reliable segment of Republican voters. Many of them lack college educations. A college degree may be within reach of their children, though​—​if they get a Pell grant and a federally subsidized student loan. This is the same kind of federal aid that Obama proposes to increase, and which is plausibly deemed one cause of the shameless rise in tuition. A good way to stop the cost spiral, therefore, is to cut financial aid provided by the federal government​—​cuts that will be unavoidable anyway if Republicans hope to reduce federal spending for other reasons. (Pell grants alone totaled nearly $41 billion last year.) Which Republican wants to go first in offending the party’s most reliable voters?

Yet there may be a way out of the Republican pickle​—​and, more important, a way out of the crisis of American higher education. In a recent report from the left-wing Center for American Progress, Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School, notes that 10 percent of college students took at least one online course in 2003; 30 percent did so in the fall semester of 2009. And he predicts 50 percent will be taking online courses two years from now. Already several online universities, such as Western Governors University, are offering cheap and reputable degrees.

Christensen isn’t alone in thinking the web will remake colleges and universities. Many institutions will simply fail when their economic illogic is exposed by the competition that online study​—​inexpensive, measurable, flexible, convenient, and efficient in providing what employers want from graduates​—​will inevitably create for them. The trick for policymakers will be to let this market develop. Get out of its way, in other words. This is what Republicans are supposed to be good at.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College.

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