Big-Spending Conservatives

06/19/2006 08:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Throw a lot of federal money at a problem, then say it doesn't exist. That's the conservative party line when it comes to higher education. Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institutegot Fox to print a laughable retort to the Page One USA Today story last week on student debt.

McCluskey's rap? Spending on federal student aid is growing.

"Between 1994-95 and 2004-05 inflation-adjusted grant aid per student from both federal and other sources ballooned 51 percent, from $2,965 to $4,479, and overall aid rose 61 percent, from $6,261 to $10,119." That's from this College Board report. It's a true fact.

It's also true that the Pell Grant, the largest federal student grant, has been flat-funded since 2003 at $4,050, paying less than a third of the costs at the average public university (compared to around three-fourths back in the 70s when it was created.)

It's also true that state support for higher education is at a 25-year low on a per-student basis. State budgets have historically been the greatest source of funding for public universities, where almost 80% of US college students attend. Budget cuts have been passed onto college students and families in the form of tuition increases , who then turn to federal aid, which is increasingly available in the form of loans, which students, in the real world, tend to experience as a greater risk than grants--sometimes even as more of a burden than a boon.

Now you could bat these numbers back and forth all day. What really makes me laugh is the argument that since the federal government is already spending a hell of a lot of money on this problem, that means the problem is not really a problem at all.

Neal, let's shake hands and agree that throwing more taxpayer dollars away is not going to get at the root causes of this mess. What we need is a solution that curbs billions of federal subsidies to corporations and other waste, reins in spending at the for-profit outfits and out-of-control state bureaucracies, incurs low administrative costs of less than a penny on the dollar, is funded as a public good and a public investment, is modeled on the successful systems in other industrialized nations, and protects the poorest and most vulnerable, who are most exposed to risk in the current system.

Wait a second, was I talking about health care or higher ed? Oh, right, both!