The Wall Street Journal. August 26, 2013. Another school year beckons, which means it's time for President Obama to go on another college retreat. "He loves college tours," says Ohio University's Richard Vedder, who directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. "Colleges are an escape from reality. Believe me, I've lived in one for half a century. It's like living in Disneyland. They're these little isolated enclaves of nonreality."
Mr. Vedder, age 72, has taught college economics since 1965 and published papers on the likes of Scandinavian migration, racial disparities in unemployment and tax reform. Over the last decade he's made himself America's foremost expert on the economics of higher education, which he distilled in his 2004 book "Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much." His analysis isn't the same as President Obama's.
This week on his back-to-school tour of New York and Pennsylvania colleges, Mr. Obama presented a new plan to make college more affordable. "If the federal government keeps on putting more and more money in the system," he noted at the State University of New York at Buffalo on Thursday, and "if the cost is going up by 250%" and "tax revenues aren't going up 250%," at "some point, the government will run out of money."
Note that for the record: Mr. Obama has admitted some theoretical limit to how much the federal government can spend.
His solution consists of tying financial aid to college performance, using government funds as a "catalyst to innovation," and making it easier for borrowers to discharge their debts. "In fairness to the president, some of his ideas make some decent, even good sense," Mr. Vedder says, such as providing students with more information about college costs and graduation rates. But his plan addresses just "the tip of the iceberg. He's not dealing with the fundamental problems."
College costs have continued to explode despite 50 years of ostensibly benevolent government interventions, according to Mr. Vedder, and the president's new plan could exacerbate the trend. By Mr. Vedder's lights, the cost conundrum started with the Higher Education Act of 1965, a Great Society program that created federal scholarships and low-interest loans aimed at making college more accessible.
In 1964, federal student aid was a mere $231 million. By 1981, the feds were spending $7 billion on loans alone, an amount that doubled during the 1980s and nearly tripled in each of the following two decades, and is about $105 billion today. Taxpayers now stand behind nearly $1 trillion in student loans.
Meanwhile, grants have increased to $49 billion from $6.4 billion in 1981. By expanding eligibility and boosting the maximum Pell Grant by $500 to $5,350, the 2009 stimulus bill accelerated higher ed's evolution into a middle-class entitlement. Fewer than 2% of Pell Grant recipients came from families making between $60,000 and $80,000 a year in 2007. Now roughly 18% do.
This growth in subsidies, Mr. Vedder argues, has fueled rising prices: "It gives every incentive and every opportunity for colleges to raise their fees."
Many colleges, he notes, are using federal largess to finance Hilton-like dorms and Club Med amenities. Stanford offers more classes in yoga than Shakespeare. A warning to parents whose kids sign up for "Core Training": The course isn't a rigorous study of the classics, but rather involves rigorous exercise to strengthen the glutes and abs.
Or consider Princeton, which recently built a resplendent $136 million student residence with leaded glass windows and a cavernous oak dining hall (paid for in part with a $30 million tax-deductible donation by Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman). The dorm's cost approached $300,000 per bed.
Universities, Mr. Vedder says, "are in the housing business, the entertainment business; they're in the lodging business; they're in the food business. Hell, my university runs a travel agency which ordinary people off the street can use."
Meanwhile, university endowments don't pay taxes on their income. Harvard's $31 billion endowment, which has been financed by tax-deductible donations, may be America's largest tax shelter.
Some college officials are also compensated more handsomely than CEOs. Since 2000, New York University has provided $90 million in loans, many of them zero-interest and forgivable, to administrators and faculty to buy houses and summer homes on Fire Island and the Hamptons.
Former Ohio State President Gordon Gee (who resigned in June after making defamatory remarks about Catholics) earned nearly $2 million in compensation last year while living in a 9,630 square-foot Tudor mansion on a 1.3-acre estate. The Columbus Camelot includes $673,000 in art decor and a $532 shower curtain in a guest bathroom. Ohio State also paid roughly $23,000 per month for Mr. Gee's soirees and half a million for him to travel the country on a private jet. Such taxpayer-funded extravagance has not made its way into Mr. Obama's speeches.
Colleges have also used the gusher of taxpayer dollars to hire more administrators to manage their bloated bureaucracies and proliferating multicultural programs. The University of California system employs 2,358 administrative staff in just its president's office.
"Every college today practically has a secretary of state, a vice provost for international studies, a zillion public relations specialists," Mr. Vedder says. "My university has a sustainability coordinator whose main message, as far as I can tell, is to go out and tell people to buy food grown locally. . . . Why? What's bad about tomatoes from Pennsylvania as opposed to Ohio?"
Mr. Vedder notes that, by contrast, "you don't have to worry about this at the University of Phoenix. One thing about the for-profits is that they are laser-like devoted to instruction." Although for-profits like the University of Phoenix and DeVry spend more money on marketing, they don't contain as much administrative overhead.
'The Obama administration has been beating up on [for-profits] pretty hard for the past two to three years," Mr. Vedder says. "It's true that drop-out rates are disproportionately higher at the for-profits, but it's also true that the for-profits are reaching the exact audience that Obama wants to reach"—low-income minorities, many of whom are the first in their family to attend college.
Today, only about 7% of recent college grads come from the bottom-income quartile compared with 12% in 1970 when federal aid was scarce. All the government subsidies intended to make college more accessible haven't done much for this population, says Mr. Vedder. They also haven't much improved student outcomes or graduation rates, which are around 55% at most universities (over six years).
Mr. Vedder is skeptical about the president's proposal to tie federal aid to graduation rates, among other performance metrics. "I can tell you right now, having taught at universities forever, that universities will do everything they can to get students to graduate," he chuckles. "If you think we have grade inflation now, you ought to think what will happen. If you breathe into a mirror and it fogs up, you'll get an A."
A better idea, Mr. Vedder suggests, would be to implement a national exam like the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) to measure how much students learn in college. This is not on Mr. Obama's list.
Nor is the president addressing what Mr. Vedder believes is a fundamental problem: too many kids going to college. "Thirty-percent of the adult population has college degrees," he notes. "The Department of Labor tells us that only 20% or so of jobs require college degrees. We have 115,520 janitors in the United States with bachelor's degrees or more. Why are we encouraging more kids to go to college?"
Mr. Vedder sees similarities between the government's higher education and housing policies, which created a bubble and precipitated the last financial crisis. "In housing, we had artificially low interest rates. The government encouraged people with low qualifications to buy a house. Today, we have low interest rates on student loans. The government is encouraging kids to go to school who are unqualified just as it encouraged people to buy a home who are unqualified."
The higher-ed bubble, he says, is "already in the process of bursting," which is reflected by all of the "unemployed or underemployed college graduates with big debts." The average student loan debt is $26,000, but many graduates, especially those with professional degrees, have six-figure balances.
Mr. Obama wants to help more students discharge their debts by capping their monthly payments at 10% of their discretionary income and forgiving their outstanding balances after 20 years. Grads who take jobs in government or at nonprofits already can discharge their debt after a decade.
"Somehow working for the private sector is bad and working for the public sector is good? I don't see on what basis one would make that conclusion," Mr. Vedder says. "If I had to make some judgment, I would do just the opposite."
He adds that the president's approach "creates a moral hazard problem. What it signals to current and future loan borrowers is that I don't have to take these repayment of loans very seriously. . . . I don't have to worry too much about getting a high-paying job." It encourages "sociology and anthropology majors compared with math and engineering majors."
Can online education, which is being pioneered in some science disciplines, substantially reduce costs? Mr. Vedder says it can, but government won't do the innovating. "First of all, the Department of Education, to use K-12 as an example, has been littered with demonstration projects, innovation projects, proposals for new ways to do things for decades. And what has come out? Are American students learning any more today than a generation ago? Are they doing so at lower cost than a generation ago? No."
Innovation, he says, is being driven by entrepreneurs like Stanford computer science Prof. Sebastian Thrun, who founded the for-profit company Udacity that offers "massive open online courses" (MOOCs). Mr. Thrun began teaching artificial intelligence, first at Stanford and then at Udacity. Mr. Vedder notes that he quickly got "200,000 people to sign up for it. And it's a great course and people are learning like crazy."
Where the government can help, Mr. Vedder says, is to get out of the way of progress and encourage slow-moving accreditors to allow innovations to move forward more rapidly. But ultimately, the way to improve college affordability is for the government to disinvest in higher ed and wean students from subsidies.
Mr. Obama is dead set against that. "He wants to maintain that world" of nonreality in which demand is impervious to cost, Mr. Vedder sighs. "That world has to change."