Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of a Harvard education...

Rep. Buck McKeon, California Republican, thinks Americans pay too much to attend college. Despite the fact McKeon touts himself as a free-market conservative, he is willing to initiate force against those colleges that, in his view, are not “affordable” enough.

McKeon has introduced the “College Affordability in Higher Education Act,” a sweeping new federal mandate that would require all colleges and universities to report their tuition and other attendance costs to bureaucrats at the Department of Education. A school’s costs would then be subjected to McKeon’s “college affordability index,” which he describes as follows:

The college affordability index is a reasonable test to determine if institutions of higher education are keeping their college costs increases within a reasonable rate. For example, a 25 percent increase in tuition and fees is not reasonable, it is scandalous and we can no longer sit idly by and accept such increases as the natural course of things. We can not turn a blind eye to such increases because too many qualified students are not even entertaining the thought of college because they simply can not afford even the tuition of a two year public college.

There is, obviously, nothing “reasonable” about McKeon’s index. After all, a college may have good reason to increase their tuition 25%, such as the need for capital improvements or a sharp rise in labor costs. In any case, it’s not for a government official to decide what’s in a college’s best financial interests to charge students. And the fact that some students can’t afford a particular tuition rate is hardly a national tragedy. There is no “right” to attend a particular school, and certainly no “right” to force a university to charge a particular rate for their services. In the end, McKeon's index is simply the latest in a long line of arbitrary government rules which have little, if any, basis in fact or reason.

McKeon’s bill would trigger “sanctions” against any college that did not comply with his affordability index, sanctions that would bizarrely include declaring the institution ineligible for federal student financial aid programs. Denying loans to students seems an odd way of forcing a college to lower their tuition. Perhaps McKeon also thought sanctions on the Iraqi people would drive Saddam Hussein from power peacefully.

While there are many reasons for the rise in college costs, McKeon should acknowledge that it is the federal government which has caused much of these increases. Government regulation of higher education has dramatically expanded in the last 30 years—think of Title IX—and all regulation brings with it enormous costs which must be born by individual schools. If McKeon had any genuine belief in the free market, he would seek to repeal those rules which impose costs upon colleges before seeking yet another unjustified government intervention into the education market.

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