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A Modest Proposal

originally written in

April, 2014

For those hoping the Democrats and Republicans will reach consensus more often, be careful what you wish for! The policies of the (George W.) Bush and Obama administrations regarding higher education, for example, have been virtually indistinguishable: equally simple-minded, equally unhelpful, and equally intrusive.

Margaret Spellings, Bush’s Commissioner of Education, sought to require every college and university in the country to create student unit record data systems (SURDS) – a massive collection of databases that would allow the federal government to track the academic whereabouts and academic performance of every student in the country from kindergarten through college. She also sought to require mandatory acceptance of transfer credits among institutions, public and private – a policy that would have required institutions great and small to accept credits for courses taken at any other institution – ignoring any differences in quality or academic rigor among institutions. Congress shot down both regulations.

Arne Duncan, Obama’s Commissioner, has sought to impose a federal definition of what constitutes a “credit hour” and to define acceptable ratios of job income to educational costs – an oversimplification of higher education’s purpose which is in part, but only in part, workforce development

I suppose the federal government has a right to demand quality and accountability from colleges and universities – even private ones. It invests billions in student loans and student aid every year. But its ham-handed efforts to measure outcomes are not likely to do the job – and are certain to drive up educational costs as institutions spend more on collecting, entering, and filing data and the bureaucracy of compliance. And this is not to mention federal intrusion into the privacy of individual students and the educational standards of private institutions.

In this season when all Americans have slaved over their tax returns, and millions of their children are making their final decisions about college, I have a modest proposal that will allow the federal government to assess which institutions are doing a good job and which are not. It will provide the Feds with the ability to analyze the graduates of every college and university by profession, by income level, and by the extent to which they are satisfied with the education they received and whether or not it was worth what they paid. My proposal will not require institutions to collect any more data than they are collecting now; it won’t require any new bureaucracy. It is simple, accurate, definitive, and cheap.

It involves adding three simple questions to the IRS 1040 form. Almost everybody files this form already. With a little cooperation from the IRS, the Education Department can link the answers of these three questions with any individual, his or her job, income, marital status, and number of dependents – just about anything else they might care to know.

What are the three questions?

  1. What College did you attend (if any)?

  2. What degree did you receive?

and

  1. Was it worth it?

Any institution that scores less than 50% on the “was it worth it?” question should be ineligible for federal funding. Any institution that scores less than 25% should lose its non-profit tax status (if it is non-profit). I suspect most reputable and productive colleges and universities would fare respectably. The fly-by-night for-profit institutions that load students up with loan debt in exchange for a worthless credential would lose out – and good riddance to them!

The beauty of this modest proposal is that it doesn’t assume everybody has the same reasons for pursuing higher education. College and university graduates have put their educations to such varied and ingenious uses that it is hard to imagine any government career matrix doing justice to their life paths. Some graduates become bankers, or accountants, entrepreneurs, or chemical engineers. Others find their calling as teachers, rabbis, social workers, or scientists. Some are drawn to poetry, philosophy, or the performing arts. Many (perhaps most) find they have the intellectual tools to flourish as lifelong learners, changing careers and vocations along the way as opportunities permit and circumstances require.

People have highly individual reasons for pursuing higher education, and the real value of their education will never be accurately captured by government-imposed categories and metrics. So just ask the customers if they got what they wanted and if was worth what they paid. Pretty simple really.

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