What’s Wrong With College? Follow The Money

Bill Frezza Fellow, Competitive Enterprise Institute
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What do the following have in common? Skyrocketing college tuition. Plummeting college graduation rates. Trillion-dollar student debt. Underage campus binge drinking. Campus rape tribunals. Unemployed college graduates moving back home.

Answer: They’re all driven by a tsunami of federal dollars. 

How so? Our nation’s Founders knew well that democracy could slide into tyranny, so they imposed major institutional constraints on the government they crafted. But while they rightly foresaw how future leaders might abuse the coercive power of the law, it appears they failed to anticipate how crafty politicians could use the seductive power of the purse to advance all sorts of agendas. Who needs legislation?

This is especially prevalent in American today, given the extent the government transfers wealth from one group to another. It has been that way since Franklin Delano Roosevelt put the power of the federal purse on steroids when his administration created the massive largesse-dispensing machine known as the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. Never before had votes been purchased on such a grand scale. Fast forward to the present and take a look at how much federal money flows into American colleges and universities.

Promoted as the gateway to the good life, our modern academic temples gobble more than one hundred billion each year in tax dollars, saddle taxpayers with more than a trillion dollars in student loans, boast vocal representation in every Congressional district, employ more than 1,000 lobbyists, charge tuition that is growing far faster than the rate of inflation, and peddle a product with an abysmal failure rate—all while dodging accountability.

And what do we have to show for it?

College tuition is heading for the stratosphere. And why not, with Uncle Sam picking up ever more of the tab? Someone has to pay for all the extra administrative staff required to assure regulatory compliance.

Many colleges have abysmal graduation rates. Read the new College Scorecard and weep. How a college that repeatedly graduates fewer than 25 percent of its students can continue to receive federal funds is a mystery the next administration is going to have to solve.

Government-backed student loan debt has soared to more than $1.3 trillion, with another $2,726 added every second. Default rates are in a race with federal forgiveness programs, both of which produce the same result — defrauded taxpayers.

It may seem difficult to connect the dots between underage binge drinking on college campuses and federal dollars, but look no further than the allocation of Washington’s highway funds. These funds are denied to any state that sets its drinking age below 21. The result? Knowing that they won’t be served, undergraduates fill their bellies with hard liquor before going out for a night of revelry, putting themselves at risk of alcohol poisoning.

Washington’s fingerprints are also on the rise of campus rape tribunals, which have led to a rise in allegations of due-process violations on campuses and lawsuits filed by the accused. The Obama administration invoked Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a federal civil rights law, to threaten investigation of and cutoff of federal funds to any university that fails to adopt procedures to investigate and prosecute allegations of sexual assault. Rape and sexual assault are serious crimes, and deserved to be dealt with by police and courts, not college administrators chasing federal dollars.  

And here’s the big enchilada: American taxpayers, you and I, are paying for all of it. And, how have all these federal dollars served our recent graduates?

Never before have so many college graduates headed back to their parents’ house, unable to find gainful employment and burdened with unprecedented levels of debt, especially young women. You have to go back to 1940 to see numbers this bad. Never before have so many degrees been granted that bear so little relation to the skills employers seek, while good paying jobs in the skilled trades go begging.

The ripple effect on the economy of this failure-to-launch problem is serious for these young people and the future of our country — lost wages, postponed marriages, fewer households formed and homes bought, foregone child rearing, and failure to develop human capital during the crucial early years in their careers.

Lord Acton warned us that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely… So does “free” money.