With classes starting up again, President Obama took the opportunity to state his vision for the future of American higher education in an article published in several college newspapers. He writes:
“So we are making college more affordable, gearing the education you receive to the demands of a global economy, and taking steps to lift graduation rates. Because this is how we’ll retake the lead in producing college graduates. This is how we’ll help students like you to fulfill your dreams.”
Of course, the “we” in this statement refers to bureaucrats or perhaps an “education czar.” Obama is echoing a widespread sentiment that education is a service provided by the government. To most, it doesn’t seem particularly controversial that the government should “administer student loans,” make “loan repayments more manageable,” and “develop, implement and evaluate new approaches to improving college success and completion.” Indeed, the government already exerts wide-ranging control over all these aspects of higher education.
But is this the purpose of government? Should our bureaucrats be in control of educational funding? Should they be inventing and implementing programs to optimize graduation rates? There’s a basic problem with the government performing this role: the government is fundamentally an institution of force, which is legitimately used to defend citizens from crooks, invaders and con-men. But beyond these functions, the power of the state becomes an instrument to manipulate freedom. For example, if the government institutes a program to increase the number of college graduates, someone must be forced to pay for that program. When bureaucrats are put in charge of developing curriculums and funding, students are no longer able to engage in trade within a free marketplace of ideas, presented instead with a distorted educational environment where legal authority and taxpayer funds shape the educational landscape.
Alongside the moral problem of government control of education is a practical problem—when a bureaucrat makes a decision that will be forced on millions of people, he has no way to get it right for all of them. Consider the parallel to the government takeover of healthcare:
“This politics of pull has led to individuals being forced to spend their own money on such benefits as in vitro fertilization and chiropractic services regardless of whether they actually want or need such benefits. This makes as much sense as the government deciding that everyone needs “transportation coverage,” requiring all individuals to purchase BMWs loaded with all the options, and offering subsidies increased automobile costs for customers and the government, so the predictable result of the Massachusetts plan has been massively increased costs all around.”
The government is no better equipped to decide appropriate levels of higher educational funding, target graduation rates or loan payback procedures. A quality education is something that must be actively created and pursued, not doled out by government favor. It is only a free educational market that can meet the unique needs and myriad challenges that come with delivering a higher education. And it is only individuals, not Washington bureaucrats—no matter how smart—that can properly determine what kind of education will help them fulfill their dreams.
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