Obama’s new education policy neatly showcases the spectrum of choice we now have in our political system: to be ground down a bit at a time by technocrats who either won’t admit to or do not understand the ultimate consequences of the policy infrastructures they so busily construct or to be demolished by fundamentalists who want to dissolve the modern nation-state into a panoptic enforcer of their privileged morality, a massive security and military colossus and an enfeebled social actor that occasionally says nice things about how it would be nice if no one died from tainted food and everyone had a chance to get an education but hey, that’s why you have lawyers and businesses.
A lot of observers have been quick to point out that the Obama Administration’s announced policy on higher education is a Race to the Bottom that will make rich institutions richer and starve out the rest. There’s really no other plausible outcome when you say, “The institutions with the best results get access to financial aid for students, and the ones with the worst results can go suck a bag of dicks”, at least if you aren’t also providing some kind of aid or resource targeted specifically at weak institutions that’s intended to make them stronger or more successful. I also think it’s clearly intended to kill online for-profit education without the Administration having to say so directly by denying them access to the Pell Grants that are so crucial to their bottom line.
There are other collateral consequences to the policy that will probably come to pass even if it’s softened or modified in many respects (which, at least as the for-profits go, is almost certainly going to happen given their numerous powerful protectors in Washington). For example, the policy creates a whole new category of data that every college and university is going to have to track, that they literally can’t afford to not track, and that’s employment outcomes for all future graduates. I’m sure administrations across the country are sighing and beginning to think about how they would track such data systematically rather than anecdotally, and the answer has to involve more personnel or personnel with new and more expensive skill sets, because that’s a hard kind of data to come by without a major continuing effort to collect it. So in an initiative that’s supposedly about making institutions more cost-conscious, there are plenty of new costs being generated.
The deeper question really is, “Why do technocrats insist on indirect, stealthy approaches to objectives they refuse to declare directly? Why not talk more clearly about both the philosophy and the goals behind a major public policy initiative?” And deeper still is, “Why do technocrats still not understand after all this time that it is precisely their indirection that continuously fuels American popular skepticism about ‘government’ and robs them of the political goodwill of many people who actually support the values or objectives that can be dimly discerned inside of the Rube Goldberg machine of some overcomplex policy apparatus that is being dragged through the torturous rounds of our highly dysfunctional bureaucracies and legislature?”
Why, for one example, struggle so hard to craft the ACA and protect it from political backlash, why make legislation which could so easily be painted as a labyrinthine mess of contradictions and confusion because it is a labryinthine mess of contradictions and confusion, when there was ample evidence that a solid majority of American voters would support a simple strong regime of mandatory cost controls and something rather like a single-payer system?
Why, for the present example, not just say, “For-profit education should make its profits off of the services it provides being valued sufficiently by its customers, not off of public monies intended to help needy students get access to non-profit education.” Why not just say, “There are colleges and universities out there which do not meet minimal standards of quality (graduation rates or any other metric) and we believe they should close their doors.” Or if you actually feel like being a visionary more than an executioner, why not say, “Look, here’s a better idea for what mass higher education should be–it shouldn’t be in a race to compete with elite private universities–and the federal government is going to put a lot of money behind building mass higher education 2.0 as an alternative to the needs of the majority of Americans seeking education beyond K-12, this is going to be the new G.I. Bill for the 21st Century.”
As always, Matthew Yglesias is a great portrait of what happens when a well-meaning kid with a good education settles down to become a technocratic barnacle on some encrusted rock. You get a clear picture from reading him of what technocrats think they’re doing, and why the concept of the incentive, disembedded out of economics, has become the technocrat’s version of the Nicene Creed. Incentive, in their world, is a compressed way of saying, “I am smarter than you are, but you unfortunately have just enough power to get in my way if I try to do you what I think is best for you, so I’m going to try to trick you into doing what I think you should do.” Incentive is also the sound of a dumb chortle from someone who thinks he’s just gotten a free lunch. Not only does the magic of incentive get the people who didn’t marinate in the think-tank juices to do what their betters deem they ought, it’s a way to make them pay for doing it. Incentive is also a promise to the powerful and the interested that there will be a way to let them out of anything they really don’t like, as long they’re willing to pay a modest premium to opt out of obligations that others can’t escape.
So the idea with higher education is, “I can get rid of for-profits and I can get rid of shitty fifth-tier colleges and universities and I don’t have to take the political heat for doing either. And I don’t have to actually say what I think mass higher education should be if not an expensive imitation of what elite selective education should be, because ‘wisdom of crowds’ and all that, if we set the incentives right, that will emerge.” Technocrats live in the wonderland of the question marks in the Underpants Gnomes business model, endlessly fussing over the exact terms of Point #1 and certain that the Profit! of #3 will follow.
The rest of us also end up in the question marks, but in a rather different way. We end up with a question of just how long the slow decay of existing systems (many of them admittedly dysfunctional) will go on without anyone, technocrat or otherwise, having to deal with the fact that the needs that created those systems remain as acute as ever while the ability of our society to satisfy those needs is more and more deficient. Defunding ‘bad’ K-12 schools via a testing regime and ‘accountability’ has led either to organized cheating that makes everything worse or it has led to the creation of a hodgepodge alternative of semi-private charter schools which on balance are no better than the “bad” systems that they are meant to reform. Meaning we now know less about what the situation on the ground really is and we have even less clarity about what education is for and what the public stake in education might be. About all we’ve achieved is the dispersal of agency over bad outcomes: now no one is really responsible for and accountable to the direction of the system as a whole. The heads of little people get to roll with depressing regularity, while the Big Men and Women get to move on after a few years with a nice sparkling new item in their resumes. Which suits the technocrat just fine, because those are the clients they really want to provide service to.
None of what has happened in K-12 ‘reform’ even remotely attempts to struggle with the fundamental question: why do we need education for our children, and why is there a pressing public interest in supplying that education? Defund the schools in Philadelphia and the children of Philadelphia who can’t flee to private institutions or move with families to the suburbs are still there. Incentives can only push so much dust under the rug before the rug itself is mounded high to the ceiling of the room.
The same goes for higher education, or health care. I’d support the Administration with a whole heart if they said, “Look, if you want to make money educating people, that’s your goddamn problem: don’t build Pell Grants into your bottom line. We’re cutting you off.” And if they said, “Citizens shouldn’t have to pay a lot to go to a low-quality university that takes nine years to graduate from and provides almost nothing in return, any more than they should have to worry that the sausage they just bought in the market has fecal matter and the fingers of a factory worker in it.” Put some teeth into accreditation if you like at the boundary between the minimally acceptable and the unacceptable. There are institutions out there that should be out of business. There are institutions out there that the colleges and universities that do care should work harder to put out of business or that we should invest directly in improving, because their failures affect all of us.
But if the federal government wants that outcome or we want that outcome, then figure out an answer to the question, “So why do students and their families actually pay so much for a bad service?” The answer is a little bit, “Because there’s not enough information out there to make a good choice” and a lot, “Because they have to.” Why do they have to? Because there are too many people chasing too few jobs, and because employers are using credentials as a proxy for, “People who want the jobs bad enough that they might do the job well”. The more people that get the credentials, the more that people looking for a proxy that makes a more and more arbitrary process of selecting a candidate manageable look for more credentials. Which turns higher education into a kind of death march of debt and dysfunctionally pegs its content to whatever concretized credentials desperate middle managers think they need for jobs that really just take common sense, critical thought, energy and the ability to communicate.
You are not addressing that problem when you just lop off the bottom of the education marketplace with policy mechanisms that clumsily attempt to hide that as their intent. You are not speaking to the real issues or the real failures and you’re not providing either moral guidance or technical insight into how those issues might be solved or those failures made into successes. You are not helping at all when you officially define higher education as being a jobs training program but refuse to cop to that as a statement about values.
The technocrat imagines himself the captain of the S.S. Creative Destruction and in so doing argues in advance that if he happens to strike an iceberg, then he meant to do so all along. Really all he is doing is being a punk who breaks into the vacant home down the block and spray-paints a few walls. It may still be vacant but hey, it looks a bit better, right?