TAUBE: School vouchers, rather than lower tuition costs

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Colleges competing for student dollars would produce the best educational value

Most North American families recognize the value of a post-secondary education in today’s society. Unfortunately, the cost of sending one or more of their children to a college or university can be very hard on budgets and wallets.

To his credit, President Obama has expressed his desire to improve access to higher education for all Americans. To his detriment, he is using the worst possible approach to tackle this important issue.

In an Aug. 23 interview with Chris Cuomo on CNN’s “New Day,” Mr. Obama mentioned three strategies to deal with colleges and universities. First, he wants to “create a new system of ratings for colleges so that parents and students know what schools graduate kids on time, are a good value for the money, lead to good jobs” and so forth. Second, he wants to “work with colleges who are doing some really interesting things to figure out how do you reduce costs.” Third, he wants to “build on something we’ve already done, which is to try to help students manage their debt.”

The president also mentioned that government “shouldn’t be in the job of profiting from students who need to go to college. But we should also expect something from the colleges, which is they’re controlling their costs better, and we should expect something from the students.” One particular problem, he claims to have seen, is “that a lot of students, because in part they’re not well-informed, they’re taking out a lot of loans, but they’re not thinking through how fast they need to graduate, they never graduate, and they can’t pay back the loans. That means the taxpayer is getting stuck and the young person is no better off than they would have been. They’re worse off.”

To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with a college rating system. Competition is the key to success, after all. At the same time, Mr. Obama is way off-base when it comes to his proposal for lowering tuition costs and student debt.

Lower tuition rates theoretically could decrease overall post-secondary education debt at a fractional rate. At the same time, reducing the costs of post-secondary education diminishes the overall value of the degree a student is earning, be it from Harvard or Florida International. In other words, cheaper higher education doesn’t necessarily equal better higher education.

Mr. Obama and the White House also shouldn’t be in the business of increasing or lowering tuition fees. Working on behalf of students and their families and defending the need for greater access to higher education is one thing. Yet it should be up to the institution to ultimately make a decision about the overall cost of tuition rates.

If the president really wants to help poor families get a better education, then he should be seriously examining and promoting programs for privately funded university vouchers and tuition tax credits. This would enable the private sector to play a vital role in helping parents choose their children’s path toward a better education, decrease costs and increase accessibility. It would also keep the government’s interfering hands far, far away from our children’s education.

Milton and Rose Friedman’s important organization, the Friedman Foundation for School Choice, is a great place to start. There is a huge library of academic papers and studies on school choice models used across the United States, including in Texas, North Dakota, North Carolina, Oregon, Montana and Maine.

Mr. Friedman, the late and influential libertarian economist, started promoting school vouchers back in the 1950s. He strongly believed in freedom of educational choice for consumers — in this case, parents and their children. During a CNBC interview in 2003, Mr. Friedman said, “The purpose of vouchers is to enable parents to have free choice, and the purpose of having free choice is to provide competition and allow the educational industry to get out of the 17th century and get into the 21st century and have more innovation and more evolvement.”

Naturally, I don’t expect a political liberal like Mr. Obama to support privately funded university vouchers. Most Democrats have real issues with school choice. They’re often in the back pockets of teachers unions (which strongly support public education), believe private vouchers will diminish the quality of public schools (which is absolute nonsense), and don’t believe public education is a failed experiment (ask inner city families what they think).

If Mr. Obama is really serious about getting America’s post-secondary education system back on track, then privately funded university vouchers deserve the highest grade.

Michael Taube is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a contributor to The Washington Times.

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