The Pope Center for Higher Education, part of the tangled web that is the Art Pope Puppetshow, has relased a new "paper" that has one idea worth considering. I know that's a big surprise, but bear with me.
The paper, "The Overselling of Higher Education," was written by Executive Director George Leef and focuses on many of the common themes that dominates higher-education policy. Among the topics addressed in the paper is the common belief that the nation has entered a “knowledge economy,” where it’s important for nearly everyone to go to college. Leef contends that this idea is mistaken, but because it is so widely believed, colleges have been flooded with students who would have been better off if they had chosen to do something else.
“Many students who are neither academically strong nor inclined toward serious intellectual work have been lured into colleges and universities,” Leef writes. “At considerable cost to their families and usually the taxpayer as well, those students sometimes obtain a degree, but often with little if any gain in human capital that will prove beneficial in the labor market or the challenges of life.”
I agree with part of Leef's argument. College isn't for everyone. But Leef quickly slides into the predictable JLF government-hating routine and blows the whole discussion apart. He proposes that governments should stop subsidizing higher education and that institutions should raise their academic standards.
I have no beef with raising standards. That's like saying cars should be safer or politicians should be ethical. Everybody's for it in concept ... until greed sets in.
But saying the government should stop subsidizing higher education is a disastrously bad idea. Under Leef's "solution" the children of wealthy parents would be the only ones getting a shot at higher education. Poor families would be screwed, again. He argues that the "market" would make up for the government's withdrawal through scholarships and grants, but that seems like little more than wishful thinking. There's no money to be made in helping poor people.
I argue that the government should be more involved - not less - but that involvement should be more diverse and needs-based. Starting at the high school level, government should embrace and support alternatives to the traditional college-track that most families opt for these days. In that sense, Leef is right. College has been oversold. But the free-market solution he proposes is not a thoughtful or complete response to the problem.
UPDATE: Chris Fitzsimon has an excellent take on the education debate here.