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Commentary: Would more affordable college provide education or credentials?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: After reading the president’s “Plan to Make College More Affordable” I couldn’t help but recall the scene in the “Wizard of Oz” in which the Wizard awards the stalwart travelers symbols of their true characteristics. The Cowardly Lion receives a medal, for he truly was brave. The Tin Man a heart, for he truly was compassionate. And the Scarecrow gets a diploma because even though he actually was quite intelligent, he just didn’t have the college degree to prove it.

Fact is not, however, fiction. Just getting a diploma does not mean you are educated. And that is where the government’s plan falters.

A key element in the plan is that the “value” of a college education isn’t commensurate with the cost. The plan seeks, therefore, to combat rising tuition, increase graduation rates and encourage competition among schools. It will accomplish none of these.

Tuition at public institutions has risen sharply over the past few years. This reflects several factors. Public universities across the nation have experienced severe cutbacks in state support. At my school, for example, as recently as 2002 more than 70 percent of our budget came from the state. Today that figure is about 40 percent. That loss in public funding was made up, in part, by increasing tuition. Perhaps parents should ask state legislators why they diverted funds from higher education.

The cost of providing a college education today is higher because of the services students require. Plush exercise facilities are commonplace. Campus restaurants that equal or surpass restaurants off campus serve student desires. Residence halls (no longer referred to as dormitories) have gone upscale. Today there are more advisers to help students navigate through their courses and broader university experience. And, of course, all campuses must provide the most recent innovations in connectivity.

Couldn’t schools rein in costs by not providing these amenities? In this world of fierce competition for a dwindling number of students, such a move would guarantee declining enrollments and falling revenues. If students are our clientele, it is bad business to alienate them with sub-par facilities.

Colleges could meet the plan’s objective by simply raising graduation rates. Indeed, the plan ties federal student loans to this statistic. Doing so creates a perverse incentive that will not increase education. If a college’s funding is made a function of graduation rates, it will respond accordingly: more people graduate. That is not improving education — an increase in knowledge — only credentialism. As the Scarecrow showed us, credentials tell us little or nothing about a person’s knowledge.

The plan also calls for reforms that will “shine a light on the most cutting-edge college practices for providing high value at low costs.” To many, cutting-edge practices equate to more online education. Properly done — that is, with educational attainment and not simple generating revenue-enhancing credit hours in mind — online education is more costly than face-to-face delivery. Instead of reaching 100 students per lecture, an online section may reach only 25. A greater online presence could actually raise costs as more, equally competent faculty are required.

Providing an educationally meaningful online class also requires significant and costly IT support. And online education simply doesn’t work for every student. As retention numbers from many private online providers indicate, it is simply too easy to drop courses when the cost of attending class is only the tuition. Learning via modern technology may seem sexier than sitting in a classroom, but it often isn’t as productive.

The industry of higher education is very competitive. The variety of schools, from small liberal arts schools to massive state institutions, already offers a student a wide array of educational opportunities. From purely online formats to hybrid classes to schools that take a more traditional classroom format, today’s student has a much wider choice than ever before. And students do shop around: Just because a student entering SIUE doesn’t graduate from this school doesn’t mean that he or she transfer to another school and successfully complete their degree.

The government’s latest plan to “fix” education is more likely to increase costs and stifle competition than improve the educational achievement of the population. More diplomas may be awarded, but their educational value will be diminished. Just ask the Scarecrow.

R.W. Hafer is a distinguished research professor of economics and finance at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and a research fellow at the Show-Me Institute.

Rik Hafer is a distinguished research professor in the Department of Economics and Finance at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and a scholar at the Show-Me Institute.