Friday, August 11, 2006

We Won't Make Tough Calls On Higher Education

August has arrived.  And with it comes the payment deadline for parents who must fork over a tidy sum to their children’s chosen colleges and universities.  College costs in West Virginia have increased by 30% since the 2001 school year.  And it is all but certain that college costs in future years will gallop along at a fast pace.

I say the cost will continue to gallop because the general inflation rate averaged 2.5% per year from 2000 through 2005.  Think of the increases that will come after a few years of 4-5% inflation.

The state and federal governments have contributed to these runaway costs by legislating easy money policies.  Subsidized loans, Pell grants, and PROMISE scholarships are all noble gestures.  However, easy money begets wasteful spending.  Had higher education been made to live off what its customers could afford to pay, then college campuses would look downright Spartan by comparison. 

But we cannot let market forces dictate admission to higher education.  After all, we live in a quasi-socialist society where unionized public schools give A’s to C students.  Parents tolerate this sham because no parent will freely admit that his or her kid is not college material.

As Garrison Keillor wryly observed of Lake Woebegone, "All of the children are above average."

Nationally, only 50-60% of entering college freshmen will graduate within five years.  We can conclude from reading graduation rate statistics that one-third of any college class should never have walked onto campus to start with.  But how do we determine who falls in that group?  We can’t because of the way the education system has been corrupted by easy grades and easy money.

In the final analysis, college graduates and taxpayers are paying through the nose for this system that caters to the masses.  Two out of three West Virginia undergraduates borrow money through the student loan program, and the average West Virginia graduate now finishes college with an $18,000. IOU.  This number does not include the debt that many parents incur by taking out home equity loans.  Nor does it estimate the consequences for the parents’ retirement incomes because their savings accounts were drained to pay for little Johnny’s tuition.

Pell grants pay for a significant amount of the higher education bill.  But realistically, the money to fund these grants comes from federal deficit borrowing.  It’s not free money as the politicians would have us believe.  It’s just another form of debt.

Society needs to stem this exorbitant rise in higher education costs.  There is only one way to do that, given the current education system.  Colleges must stop teaching "bonehead" English and other such remedial courses to freshmen.  The freshman year should be a difficult one with a strict core curriculum (minimum 16 credit hours each semester) of college-level English, math, and science.  The freshman year should be what it was intended to be-a weed out session.

There is no other way to rein in these costs.  Even private giving cannot offset college inflation.  West Virginia University recently raised $360 million which is almost meaningless.  The investment income on that money will never keep pace with the higher education inflation rate.  Although $360 million is a commendable sum, the university didn’t even have to wait a year to start begging money to pay for new band uniforms.

Because the public school system has failed to prepare students for college, the higher education system has been forced to teach 12th grade to incoming freshmen.  That wasted year has diluted the value of a bachelor’s degree to the point where graduates waste two more years pursuing their masters.  That’s two more years of being a non-productive adult, and two more years of debt to add to the bill.

Of course, if colleges do follow my advice, then that necessarily means that college enrollments will shrink considerably.  That would force some colleges to close up for good.  West Virginians will never let that happen.  We will continue to prop the system up with the wallets of gamblers before we give up socialized education.