Saturday, April 9, 2005

Every parent with a child in college knows that the costs of getting a bachelor’s degree are rising dramatically, and that tuition is becoming more and more of a burden.

Why is college so expensive? In his provocative Going Broke by Decree: Why College Costs So Much (AEI, $25, 232 pages), Ohio University economist Richard Vedder shows that colleges will charge as much as they can get away with.

The primary reason college bills are so high, Mr. Vedder writes, is that “the productivity of university personnel is almost certainly falling, and it is clearly falling sharply relative to the rest of the economy.” Most businesses, after all, have to continuously improve if they’re going to keep their current customers and win new ones.

Universities by contrast face “muted competitive forces,” and college presidents have no incentive to economize. As a result, professors work fewer hours than those of a generation ago, and colleges have far more administrators than they used to have.

Typically politicians respond to high tuition prices by offering more grants and loans to students. But because the college and not the student controls the size of the loan, existing loan programs do not offer schools any incentive to be more efficient.

Far better, Mr. Vedder argues, for college loan programs to be transformed into vouchers that students can use at any accredited school. Allowing students rather than schools to control tuition subsidies would increase competition among universities — and perhaps provide some schools an incentive to curb tuition rises or even cut fees.

Mr. Vedder also proposes sharply reducing the cost of college athletics, ending most affirmative action programs, and either eliminating tenure or offering newly hired professors the option of renouncing tenure in exchange for other benefits, such as first-class health insurance.

“Going Broke By Decree” is an important book that ought to be carefully read both by university presidents and by parents crushed by the rising tuition burden.

• • •

Anyone interested in the history of conservatism should be grateful to Heritage Foundation fellow Lee Edwards. His books always have new information in them, based on examination of obscure archives and interviews with important conservative leaders.

Every book he writes adds to our knowledge of American conservatism. In recent years, Mr. Edwards has specialized in authorized histories, including books about the Heritage Foundation and Grove City College.

His latest authorized history is Educating for Liberty: The First Half-Century of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (Regnery, $27.95, 320 pages). Since 1953, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) has offered students and professors an alternative to liberal academia through seminars, fellowships for graduate school, a variety of magazines, and, in the past decade, a book-publishing program.

Like most authorized histories, “Educating for Liberty” is at its best in the early chapters, when Mr. Edwards shows how the efforts of a few farsighted visionaries, including ISI founder Frank Chodorov, longtime ISI president E. Victor Milione, and National Review founder William F. Buckley, helped start ISI and keep the organization afloat during its troubled early years.

Mr. Edwards also gives proper credit to the philanthropists whose crucial early grants were vital in helping ISI get going. Among the initial donors: banker Charles Hoeflich, oil tycoon J. Howard Pew, and the Relm Foundation (now the Earhart Foundation).

Unfortunately, “Educating for Liberty” suffers from the problems most authorized histories have. Mr. Edwards’s account of ISI’s last 15 years is pompous and self-congratulatory, and reads like an annotated mission statement. At times, Mr. Edwards implies that ISI’s most noteworthy achievement is not combating campus liberalism, but providing political appointees for the Reagan administration.

ISI was — and perhaps remains — one of the more important conservative organizations. Its history deserves to be told. Those interested in the rise of the conservative movement between the Eisenhower and Reagan administrations will find “Educating for Liberty” a valuable book.

• • •

Anyone who studies the school choice movement swiftly learns that parents in other countries have a greater choice of schools than Americans do. In Educating Citizens: International Perspectives on Civic Values and School Choice (Brookings, $22.95, 381pages) editors Patrick J. Wolf, a Georgetown University public policy professor, and Stephen Macedo, a Princeton political scientist, have assembled a series of interesting papers about school choice in other countries.

“Educating Citizens” compiles papers from a conference held at the University of London. Most of these papers are by political scientists whose native language is not English and whose prose is as dry as the Sahara.

Moreover, the authors of these essays are quite good at describing laws and regulations and poor at discussing curricular content. Thus the reader of this book will learn a great deal about how European nations allow religious education in state-funded schools, but very little about what is actually taught in school. As a result, the book does not address the concern of supporters of American parochial schools who fear that government subsidies will denude these schools of Jewish or Christian teaching.

As a collection, “Educating Citizens” is uneven, but some of the essays are quite good. The most provocative essays are by two scholars at the University of Notre Dame: Richard Garnett, who argues that vouchers are constitutional as a form of speech protected by the First Amendment, and David E, Campbell, who shows how experiments in Ontario with tuition tax credits and in Alberta with vouchers combined with tough province-wide exams have affected Canadian parochial schools.

Americans know far too little about how other countries educate their children.

While not for the casual reader, “Educating Citizens” is a very useful reference for anyone seriously interested in school choice.

Martin Morse Wooster is the author of “Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds.”

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