Colleges get a Dose of Progressive Medicine

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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