The master of deception and double talk is at it again. Desperate to win the votes of college students and their parents in November, President Obama has seized on an issue that hits home with a broad cross-section of Americans: the exorbitant cost of college tuition. You have to give it to Barack Obama. One thing America’s self-proclaimed “fourth best president” can do is recognize an issue that is ripe for exploitation, and Barack Obama is a master of exploitation.
Let me be clear. President Obama is right about the cost of college tuition. It is too high. Understand that I make this claim not just as a columnist, but as an individual who, after completing seven college degrees—five of them at the graduate level—and spending 36 years in higher education as a business professor, dean, provost, and vice-president has both paid and collected a lot of tuition money. The president has stumbled upon a real problem, but as usual he is wrong about the cause as well as the solution.
Reducing the cost of college tuition will require more than presidential grandstanding and leftwing pandering. In fact, President Obama’s proposal does not even have reducing tuition costs as its goal. As usual with leftwing economic policies, one must listen carefully and critically. The goal is to reduce the increase in costs, not to reduce costs. In other words under the Obama plan colleges will be rewarded for increasing tuition costs as long as they don’t increase them as much as they would like to. Listening to President Obama can be like reading Alice in Wonderland.
Make no mistake about it. Colleges have been able to continually raise tuition because of federal government subsidies in the form of student loans and grants. This is why during the worst economic times in decades college enrollments have achieved unprecedented growth. The business of higher education is like the liquor business. In bad times, sales go up. The reason college enrollments can go up during economic downturns is that government-backed student loans and grants allow people not just to go to college but to make an acceptable living by being a college student.
If Barack Obama really wants to reduce tuition costs, all he has to do is develop realistic measures for awarding financial aid to college students. As things stand now, Pell Grants and student loans are available to anyone who qualifies regardless of major. Because of this there are a lot of young people who do not yet know what they want to do with their lives going to college to “find themselves.” I can tell you from years of experience, that the college campus is an expensive place in more ways than just dollars for young people to try to find themselves. These ambivalent students are classified by colleges as “undecided” because they have not yet claimed a major. College may not be the best place for someone who is undecided about life.
What often happens is that young people who are enrolled in college only because they don’t have any other plans are still undecided when the time finally comes that they must select a major. This typically happens at the beginning of their junior year. Many respond to this dilemma by selecting any major, provided it is not too academically challenging, with no thought given to its marketability. As a result, every year thousands of college students who should have taken a course in economics incur lifelong debt from federal student loans to pursue degrees in majors that have little or no marketability. Americans recently got a glimpse behind the curtain concerning where this untenable situation might eventually lead when many of the Wall Street protestors demanded forgiveness of their student loans and high-level jobs for which they are not qualified.
Certain college degrees are not marketable either because there is a glut of graduates with these degrees (e.g. psychology) or the degree is in some artificial field created by colleges to prop up enrollments by accommodating marginal students (e.g. Leisure Management). At the same time, America has fallen well behind other industrialized nations in producing graduates in the critical STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). In other words America is spending millions of dollars to support college students majoring in disciplines that are not needed while critically needed disciplines remain under enrolled.
Barack Obama could reduce college tuition and increase the number of students completing marketable college degrees by simply limiting federal financial aid to students willing and able to major in disciplines that are badly needed by our country but are in short supply (i.e. the STEM disciplines). This would at least make funneling taxpayer dollars to colleges and universities an investment in improving America’s competitive position in the global marketplace. To critics who claim that such an approach would not be fair because people should be able to pursue the college degree of their choice, I respond: “Yes they should. But not with the American tax payer picking up the tab.”