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The Shopping Solution for Higher Ed

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GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney once again offered a display of that extra special common touch he’s got. He doesn't care how much it costs to go to college. He really just isn't interested. He thinks it's a personal issue, not a matter of public policy. This is odd because, in fact, higher education -- its cost and availability -- has everything to do with the actions of government, and always has.

According to a piece by David Firestone in the New York Times:

The high school senior who stood up at Mitt Romney’s town hall meeting here today was worried about how he and his family would pay for college, and wanted to hear what the candidate would do about rising college costs if elected. The answer: nothing.

Mr. Romney was perfectly polite to the student. He didn’t talk about the dangers of liberal indoctrination on college campuses, as Rick Santorum might have. But his warning was clear: shop around and get a good price, because you’re on your own.

The problem with this is not necessarily that it’s awkward to say “I don’t care” to a student, though surely it was. The problem is that Romney's response demonstrates an oddly foggy understanding about the way American education actually works.

In saying "you're on your own," the implication is that any difficulty you've got paying for college is your own damn fault. Students should just be more careful about their finances in order to keep education affordable. This isn't government's responsibility.

This is deeply misleading. While certainly individual students' bills are a function of their choices, higher education is all about government and its strategies. The rising cost of college has everything to do with policy and very, very little to do with irresponsible student decisions.

Most people can’t “shop around” for college. The majority of students (about 56 percent of them) go schools within 100 miles of their parents’ house. About 80 percent of American undergraduates attend public institutions. The problem isn't that students aren't shopping around. It's that all the stores are too expensive. Romney said:

It would be popular for me to stand up and say I’m going to give you government money to pay for your college, but I’m not going to promise that. Don’t just go to one that has the highest price. Go to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education. And hopefully you’ll find that. And don’t expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on.

Well let them eat cake.

Since 1980, the cost of public universities, adjusted for inflation, has tripled. This is almost entirely due to declining public support for higher education.

In 1960s, when his father was the governor of Michigan, for instance, state funding made up 80 percent of the budget of the state's flagship university. Today the state provides about 17 percent. In the early 1960s, in-state students paid less than $150 per semester to attend the University of Michigan (that's about $1,102 in today's money). Students now pay about $14,000 a year. There’s no “shopping around” and “going to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education” that will alter this reality. This is a trend at state universities all across America.

If the state doesn’t fund the public colleges very well, as the former governor of Massachusetts might understand, students just pay more for college. Even community colleges cost more and more every year.

Perhaps Romney believes that’s appropriate. But be realistic. Higher education is public policy. It’s maybe state and not federal policy, but shopping won’t change the trend here.

Perhaps it’s fine if college just gets more expensive. But this means that people just have to take out more burdensome student loans and eventually fewer people in America will go to college.

It's government policy that's making this happen. This trend will continue in the absence of any new policy (either from states or the federal government) to curtail this trend and change the way public institutions are supported. That’s that only direction this can go.

Maybe Romney thinks that trend is great. But then it's time to explain why rather than making it sound like the escalating cost of college comes from irresponsible student choices or irresponsibly generous public policy.

[Cross-posted at the Washington Monthly]