Are we on a threshold of a level of public interest in college costs where that topic becomes a major issue in the 2012 presidential election, rather than some small side issue? Economists like myself think margins are important—and at some point if the marginal benefit of something rises while the marginal cost falls, people will want more of it. A threshold is reached that moves people from apathy to action. We have been creeping towards that threshold in higher education for years, as rising college costs and decreased perceived benefits have led to more and more discussion: Is higher education worth it? Nonetheless, compared with issues such as unemployment, health care, environmental concerns, international terrorism, etc., higher education has been a small issue—mainly because at any moment of time it impacts only a small portion of the people—maybe 5 or 10 percent.
Two things in the past week have led me to believe we are nearing the threshold of broader national debate. First, with the help of former sidekick Matt Denhart, I wrote an opinion piece on rising college costs for CNN.com that has received well over 2,000 comments—an extraordinary number even for a top-viewed Web site. Second, the Obama administration, which is obviously in full campaign mode, has started arguing that it is interested in doing something about college costs.
While it is nice that the president is willing to have a conversation in the White House on the issue, it was extremely disappointing in terms of whom he had invited to participate. First, it appears it was largely university presidents. Arguably that is a little like inviting Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden to a conference on terrorism, or asking Charlie Manson to speak at a conclave on the protection of children from predators. While university presidents may be a part of any solution, the fact that they have fiercely ignored public concerns about higher-education costs in order to engage in cost-enhancing moves to appease internal constituencies suggests that true reform must come from outside the academy. And not from the likes of other attendees like Jane Wellman, an Establishment type who has a few interesting PowerPoint slides but rarely proposes anything substantive in the way of change. And certainly not Jamie Merisotis of the Luminia Foundation, who wants to divert ever more public funds to support expanded higher-education ventures of dubious value.
Another problem is that, I understand, no for-profit institutions were invited, nor even the politically more favored public comprehensive colleges (only one community-college leader was in attendance). Most incremental enrollments have come from these institutions. They are lower cost by many measures and have interesting things to say. To be sure, there were some schools represented with a good message to tell, notably Berea College, but where were those actively promoting substantive reform? As one who toiled for over a year on a national commission on these issues, it is extremely naive to believe that anything substantive could come out of a single meeting. In my opinion it had a lot more to do with presidential politics than anything substantive, although, again, I am glad that the issue has been raised in the public consciousness.
Speaking of politics, let me be an Equal Opportunity Offender: the Republican pronouncements on higher-education cost issues has been far from illuminating. In particular, the hearing that Representative Virginia Foxx recently held was, by all accounts I’ve heard, extremely disappointing, with some of the same individuals testifying as at the Obama heart-to-heart. Where were the real innovators—companies with intriguing low-cost instructional ideas like StraighterLine, or nonprofit organizations like Khan Academy or the Saylor Foundation? Where were those wanting to radically revise, or even eliminate, our flawed student-loan program? Maybe they were there (I was in Europe), but my sidekick Jonathan Robe who attended says it was a wishy-washy hearing, not raising truculently issues that need to be addressed or getting at the root causes of the problem—poor information, abysmal incentives, and, consequently, inadequate innovation.