Wince and Repeat: Government Money and the Corruption of Higher Education

Education has always been a time consuming process that demands societies to sacrifice its resources for kids. Think of all the contexts we have managed to educate kids in. During the Black Death, when over a third of human beings convulsed from bubonic plague, monks still found time to educate orphans by candlelight. Western thought survived. Centuries later, in his famous speech, “Learning in Wartime,” C.S. Lewis also made the case for education during the horrors of World War II. As young men were being blown to pieces by fascists on the battlegrounds of Europe and Asia, the case for learning did not meet its match.

In all of these hopeless times, human beings became literate, wise, and even brilliant. Now we are here, surrounded by resources that have surpassed the wildest dreams of our teachers. Yet what has seemed possible in past ages is now seen as a large barrier to success for future generations of Americans. Why you ask? Because lawmakers have decreed it be so.

Progressive senators and presidential candidates pander to voters with the promise of free college education. This argument picks up traction when lawmakers tug on the impulse that has always driven human beings to educate their young. Satisfying the heart-stringed desire to “educate the next generation” has already brought government in to solve the problem of affordable college. And so far, it has only done the opposite for students and families.

It went like this: President Lyndon Johnson introduced education reform and ushered in Title IV, allowing the federal government to provide students with loans to pay off school. In turn, students could now afford to pay for their education, deferring the costs to a successful, future version of themselves.

For this plan to have worked, every party involved in the transaction—the student, the school, and the state—needed to believe these three things were and would always be true.

  1. The student really had to believe it was important to only receive the necessary resources for a good education and demand it from their school.

  2. The schools really needed to believe a good education was important and take stringent measures to direct only the necessary resources to reach that goal.

  3. The state needed to assure that the funding it provided was somehow connected to the thing it was meant for: the necessary resources for student learning and development.

Nobody held up their end of the deal.

The first thing to realize is that all three parties could not look at the new influencing factor in Title IV— money—and prevent it from corrupting their decision making process. Schools, students, and government aid programs all needed to restrain the definition of “necessary resources” for the mission of affordable schooling to work. But none of them could help themselves when exorbitant amounts of money was placed on the table.

Instead, the money that would have been used for the purpose of educating students created new forms of entertainment and and extra layers of bureaucracy and administration in Universities. If you want to know why college has actually gotten so expensive, look no further than how the money provided to make college more affordable was used.

When students were offered loans to go to school, more money was placed in school coffers. That money was then used to attract more students. This process corrupted both parties. Soon, every dollar used to invest in education programs was outweighed by the money devoted to superfluous amenities for college campuses (think about the campus ski resorts, personal dairy bars, or luxury condo dorms, to name a few).

Money that was not used to fund luxuries was instead devoted to funding hordes of collegiate bureaucrats, hired to coddle students in progressive notions of “student safety,” “diversity,” and “inclusion” to ensure that the college experience satisfied every longing of students, both culturally and spiritually.

The more schools received federal loans from students, the more bloated schools became in federal funds. This initial phenomenon made school more expensive for the next round of learners.

As all of these unnecessary services got more pricey, the federal government was all too happy to offer more aid, students all too happy to accept it, and schools all too happy to take it, turn around, and make school more amenable (and, expensive) for students in the following year. Wince, repeat, and here we all are, $60,000 in debt.

Scholars use the phrase, “Don’t leave money sitting on the table” to capture the attitude of schools when it comes to federal money. I prefer calling it “you pretend to teach us, and we will pretend to learn.” After all, students are not simply victims, as the more they have come to expect luxury in their four years of college, the more schools found an incentive to provide it.

It seems the lesson to learn from the introduction of Title IV is that, when government tries to make college more affordable, college becomes less affordable. The lesson does not seem unique to education, but to human nature. The education industry, which has become a sausage cocktail of special interests, government money, and the youthful desire for a good time, does not provide the groundwork for good “student outcomes.”

What do we do now? We need to stop thinking about college the way certain lawmakers do. When Americans begin to reject the government problem/government solution cycle of solving it, we will once again find ourselves able to educate the next generation.