When President Obama talked about unaffordable college tuition, he failed to point out that federal subsidies are responsible for much of the unaffordability. In his State of the Union message, he said, "If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down." However, since tuition is dependent on federal aid, it cannot remain stable or go down unless federal aid is reduced.
Now if there were real interest in "providing good value" as the president noted, there would be longitudinal studies on graduates. But what would one say about Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Ralph Lauren and others who were college drop-outs? Moreover, what does it mean to talk about "good value" when students can design their own course of study avoiding mathematics, chemistry, American history, even Shakespeare?
If the government denies assistance to colleges, many would collapse. Would that be a bad thing? It is if one of the colleges is your alma mater, or if your son or daughter goes there. But President Obama is not really serious about reducing aid, and most university officials know that the award for Pell grants is likely to rise and eligibility to loosen.
Many parents are caught in an ideological dilemma. On the one hand, they want to reduce the size and influence of federal authority; on the other hand, they realize that without Pell grant and other federal subsidies, they may not be able to afford tuition for their children.
Universities should tighten their ever-loosening belts by refusing government aid. This might encourage curriculum reform, a return to basics instead of the present curriculum which includes the fashionable and the trifling. In my experience there isn't a major university in the United States that couldn't cut 10 percent of its budget without in any way adversely affecting the delivery of programs and services. These cuts might also serve to catalyze institutional reform such as on-line programming and independent study projects.
The trick is to unleash market forces. Let curriculum reform dictate marketability. Let online courses serve as a credible alternative to classroom study. Let some universities fail--some certainly should. And let parents and students make choices based on the trade-off between taxes and tuition.
The President could make a difference if he said it is time for the federal government to get out of the way so that market forces can flourish. There was a time when tuition rates were affordable for even working class people, but that was before federal intervention. It may be time to turn the clock back to that period.