What Has Government Done to Our Education?

Few people today, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, political persuasion or socioeconomic background, will dispute the importance of education. When it comes to the quality and provider of that education, however, a lot more disagreement is to be expected. And affordability is another issue altogether, especially when making comparisons on a global scale.

Tuition fees
American students pay by far the highest tuition fees, at an average of nearly $14,000 per year, compared to roughly $7,700 in Australia, $5,974 in Canada, $5,288 in England and Wales and only $900 in Germany. The lowest average annual tuition is paid by the Danes at $530. In fact, Danish public universities are fully taxpayer-subsidized and charge no fee at all even to foreign students, as long as they are EU citizens. Wonderful as this may seem from an accessibility standpoint, the quality of higher education in Denmark has for years been an issue of public debate – not to mention the fact that the sector as a whole is largely underfunded.

Quality of education
Though differing educational standards make an across-the-board quality comparison on a global scale a gruesome task, some measure of quality can be deduced from such global university rankings as compiled by Times Higher Education and the Global Higher Education Rankings project. These rankings consistently include dozens of American universities in the world’s best 100, making them by far the most prevalent.

This might lead one to conclude that students in the United States can at least rest assured knowing they have access to high-quality education in exchange for their exorbitant tuition fees. It should be noted, however, that the number of degree-granting institutions in the United States stands at nearly 4,500, compared to only about 400 in Germany, nearly 200 in Australia, 165 in the UK, and less than a hundred in Canada. Seen in that light, higher education in the U.S. turns out to not nearly be as successful as the raw data suggests, but rather more comparable to other developed countries’ performance. The question, then, is what makes a U.S. degree so extraordinarily expensive?

educationIf you like your education, you can borrow tons of money to keep it
In order to answer that question one would need to go back in time, to the advent of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” in the 1960s. A host of government programs championed by the Johnson administration and supported by the progressive majority in the House of Representatives not only produced unaffordable welfare programs but also laid the foundation for unaffordable higher education.

Proponents of government intervention in education will dismiss this suggestion and point to the lack of consensus in the literature as to what causes tuition fees to rise. And it is true that there is no incontrovertible proof that federal tuition aid alone drives up the cost of higher education, partly because of the diverse ways in which public and private universities are organized and operated. Yet basic economics (and common sense, for that matter) has it that when demand for a product or service rises while the supply remains the same, its price has nowhere to go but up. And what do grants and loans do? You guessed it.

From the standpoint of accessibility providing grants and loans for higher education seems like a laudable plan. In that respect, the aforementioned Danes appear to be among the most fortunate people in the world. After all, they have unlimited access to higher education! When it comes to quality, though, there isn’t much to brag about; not a single Danish university is listed in the top 100 of the world. Maybe “free” education is not the way to go for those seeking high-quality education?

On the other side of the pond, total U.S. student loan debt now stands at $1.2 trillion, or nearly $30,000 per student. In three decades tuition fees have risen by 1,120 percent, meaning that the same college degree today costs 12 times as much as in 1978. In addition to leaving many young people tens of thousands of dollars in debt before they have even started to make any money, the American taxpayer is on the hook for more than $22 billion per year.

Is it worth it?
The situation may not be so bleak in other developed countries, but when is the last time you heard someone rave about how great their education was? Besides, given the heavy hand government has in education, it is no surprise our educational institutions are hardly known for churning out independent critical thinkers likely to question existing systems and paradigms. On the other hand, plenty of high school and college dropouts turned out just fine. Does that mean dropping out guarantees success in life? No, but neither does a college degree.

Stay tuned for some ideas on educational reform.

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