Colleges get a Dose of Progressive Medicine

The Obama administration has recently moved to rate colleges and universities. This proposal is not just the idea of some bureaucrat or even cabinet secretary. It appears to be a brainchild of the President himself. As such it represents a window into his progressive, centralizing mindset. This proposal threatens to undermine and further politicize our universities and colleges, which even with their many faults are the best set of higher educational institutions in the world.

It is true that one of the impulses behind the President’s effort is laudable. Many colleges do cost too much, saddle their graduates with excessive debt, and ill prepare them for the world of work. But often progressive ideas have good intentions. It is their consequences that are bad. The administration is also right that government may have some role in encouraging colleges to provide basic information about graduation and employment rates.  Such information is a good that the market may undersupply, because no one has a property right in it.  But again the problem with the progressivism is not that markets are always perfect, but that the solutions are frequently worse than the defects.

The defects of  government ratings of  higher educational institutions lie in the choice of criteria by which college will be graded and in the decisions about how to use these grades. First, the government by its nature has an agenda. Many different ideological factors are likely to influence the rating, like the extent to which the college is “diverse”, or has adequate guidelines about whatever issue is the political imperative of the moment.

The President’s notion is to  eventually use the ratings systems “to allocate billions of dollars in federal students loans and grants.” This idea is truly dreadful. Assuming that student loans themselves are a good policy, students are better at deciding how to use them than is the government. It is their lives at stake, not the President’s. Perhaps some recognize that a great books college may not yield the job with the highest salary, but believe that it will prepare them best for the intellectually abundant life. Or a religious college will inspire them to a career that serves God and their fellow man. Government grants to college should be determined on the basis of which college will best carry out the research, not on the basis of ratings that are cobbled together from factors not directly relevant to the grant’s purpose.

The only silver lining of the proposals is the angry reaction of many college Presidents. They are generally wholeheartedly in favor of the President’s progressive agenda, except when it affects them. Some may call that hypocrisy, but I prefer to think it reveals a larger lesson—one that is rarely taught at college: people are more likely to possess wisdom about the issues in their work or family than about political issues of which they have no experience

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University. His recent book, Accelerating Democracy was published by Princeton University Press in 2012. McGinnis is also the co-author with Mike Rappaport of Originalism and the Good Constitution published by Harvard University Press in 2013 . He is a graduate of Harvard College, Balliol College, Oxford, and Harvard Law School. He has published in leading law reviews, including the Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford Law Reviews and the Yale Law Journal, and in journals of opinion, including National Affairs and National Review.

About the Author

Comments

  1. says

    John,

    Doesn’t the government already limit the institutions at which students receiving loans can use those loans? Perhaps they delegate some of this authority to private accrediting agencies, but the problem you identify is still present in our current system, isn’t it?

    • John O. McGinnisJohn O. McGinnis says

      Mike, it is true that there are some (I believe quite lenient) cutoffs based on criteria like employment rates below which the government will not permit student loans to be extended. But this new initiative would be far more extensive in criteria and affect far more institutions. Grading institutions on this scale is much more likely to permit politicization and distort choices in an unfortunate way.

      • gabe says

        Didn’t this come about because of large university apprehension and fear about “for profit” colleges? and did not the Great O rant against such colleges in the past?
        Sounds to me like the chickens are coming home to roost for our illustrious College Deans.

  2. R Richard Schweitzer says

    It may be argued that “Public Education,” because of the potentially broad spectrum of the population that activity may affect, falls within the purview that Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the *United States*.

    Unlike Social Security and Medicare which are concerned with welfare limited to particular age groups, and even to some groups determined by membership in an actuarial morbidity category; or Medicaid for the benefit of members of a particular economic class; “Public Education” is arguably concerned with a time period that will involve almost all members of the “general” population.

    However, post-secondary education concerns a much more limited segment of the population; and despite the efforts of many to expand its application into “Public Education,” or, to generalize purported beneficial effects into a broader public base, “Higher Education” is not within the same population spectrum as “Public Education.”

    While valid arguments can be made for the involvement of the Federal Administrative State in the affairs and financing of “Higher Education,” there is no basis for the constitutionally delineated government to be involved in “Higher Education.”

    It is in the parasitic nature of an Administrative State to extend its penetration into the affairs of any institutions or facilities in which it attains participation. Gaining participation usually begins with provisions for benefits, privileges and immunities and ameliorations of burdens without conditions; continues with expansion of those awards, subject to conditions; then, the establishment of further conditions (their administration and enforcement) for the continuation of, or accretions to, benefits – excrescences upon excrescences, leading ultimately to varying degrees of functional control and direction of purpose and objectives, as well as the means of their attainment.

    So it is we come to the conditions recited in Professor Higgins presentation. They result directly from the use of the constitutionally delineated mechanisms of the federal government by the Federal Administrative State for functions that have no authorization within those delineations. Perhaps we should examine that use as the root of these kinds of problems.

  3. nobody.really says

    The President’s notion is to eventually use the ratings systems “to allocate billions of dollars in federal students loans and grants.” This idea is truly dreadful. Assuming that student loans themselves are a good policy, students are better at deciding how to use them than is the government. It is their lives at stake, not the President’s. Perhaps some recognize that a great books college may not yield the job with the highest salary, but believe that it will prepare them best for the intellectually abundant life. Or a religious college will inspire them to a career that serves God and their fellow man. Government grants to college should be determined on the basis of which college will best carry out the research, not on the basis of ratings that are cobbled together from factors not directly relevant to the grant’s purpose.

    Huh?

    It may well be true that any given student will be in a better position to judge how money might best be used to promote that student’s agenda than could some government formula. And that’s fine argument for letting a student spend his own money as he pleases. But if the student is spending government’s money, then there’s a sound reason that government should call the tune.

    Who says that it’s not the President’s life at stake? Encouraging students to study military defenses, or diplomacy, or cancer treatments might very well determine whether the president lives or dies – and whether you or I die prematurely as well. And since you and I (and the president) foot the bill for these guaranteed student loans, why shouldn’t our priorities matter more than an individual student’s desire to study underwater basket weaving?

    That said, I acknowledge that 1) we might all disagree about what the relevant criteria should be, 2) the practice of creating this list of criteria will tend to centralize power over a traditionally decentralized business of education, and 3) the criteria may be manipulated to promote populist agendas. That’s a bummer. Yet I have a hard time getting upset about the idea that the public’s money would be focused on promoting the public’s agenda, even if I disapprove of that agenda.

    True, the government’s power to call the tune, even as it pays the piper, is not unlimited; see USAID v. Alliance for Open Society Int’l. I really haven’t worked out in my mind where the line should go.

  4. libertarian jerry says

    After rereading the American Constitution I can’t find any mention of education or for that matter a Dept.of Education. Maybe the question is moot,by perhaps several decades, but by what reason should the Federal Government be involved at all in education ,rating colleges and universities and dolling out money,to students, that is extorted from the producers of America? By not sticking to the strict construction of the American Constitution is it any wonder then,that America is both morally and fiscally bankrupt and at the same time hopelessly in unsustainable debt?

    • R Richard Schweitzer says

      Well, the crux of Professor Mc Ginnis’ post probably relates to the business of lending money (or extending credit-if they differ). [I don't know what possessed me to refer to him as "Higgins" above].

      So, you could go a bit further and say Congress has no Constitutional authority to lend money.

      If that were recognized *and* accepted, there would be no need for lending (use of loan) criteria.

      But, to the contrary, the polity have passively accepted the embodiment of authority that engendered the Administrative State. Can that acceptance be revoked? Well, probably automatically, when the polity is sufficiently drained of its resources that are required to support those actions of that authority. But, the vestiges of the Administrative State are likely to remain for a long while yet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>