- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 16, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Finally, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has officially entered the Republican presidential primary. Political handicappers have long noted the strengths he would bring to a match-up against President Obama. In particular, the Texas economy has been one of the country’s few bright lights. Over the past decade, Texas has created half of the nation’s jobs, and since 2008, nearly 4 out of every 10 jobs. If the entire nation matched Texas’ 8 percent unemployment rate, nearly 2 million more Americans would have jobs.

Yet Mr. Perry will be able to highlight more than just his record of job creation. He also will be able to talk about the reforms he has initiated in Texas to address other key “kitchen table” issues that concern American voters, such as out-of-control college costs.

Americans worry about rising college costs with good reason. A year at an in-state public university costs more than $16,000, while out-of-state students spend $19,500. For students attending private colleges, the costs nearly double to a whopping $36,993.

And because college costs have been growing at a rate 5 percent higher than inflation annually, the numbers are expected to keep getting worse.

Why are college costs so high? A growing number of economists and policy experts think the cost of college is yet another “bubble” created by artificial demand from ballooning government subsidies for college grants and loans. Ironically, policymakers like Mr. Obama who have pushed to solve the college affordability problem by providing more generous student-aid subsidies are making the problem worse. These policies have enabled colleges to jack up their tuition at the expense of students and taxpayers.

For years, colleges got away with soaring prices because a degree still seemed like a good investment - given that college graduates significantly out-earn their peers over a lifetime in the work force. Today, however, recent graduates are struggling to find good job opportunities. The liberal arts degree that once signified strong earning potential has begun to look like a rather weak credential and, worse yet, a potential waste.

Finding better, more efficient ways to teach the next generation useful skills should be a national priority. Mr. Perry is making it one in Texas - and he could pop the higher-education bubble in the process. The Lone Star State’s governor has challenged the Texas higher-education system to create a $10,000 degree and scale that program to serve at least 10 percent of the state’s students.

Mr. Perry’s higher-education initiative is forcing colleges and universities to reassess the purpose of college.

There is no doubt that colleges spend lavishly on perks that have nothing to do with learning. Some students may want state-of-the-art dorms, championship sports teams and cutting-edge equipment. But many others simply want to attend classes that teach them new ideas, methods of thinking and skills that will help prepare them for the future.

Not surprisingly, some in the higher-education community claim a $10,000 college degree is impossible, that the prestige and quality of education will suffer under a new lost-cost regime. But the proliferation of new kinds of learning options, including online courses, computer-based blended learning and credit-by-exam pathways, certainly make it possible.

Bill Gates recently argued that the cost of getting a college education, “without the parties,” should be just a few thousand dollars. That’s because online learning will enable students anywhere to learn pretty much anything from some of the best teachers in the world, often for free.

Self-learners already can take courses for free online from some of the most prestigious universities in the world, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Students who access MIT’s courses online can’t get a degree, but they can gain the knowledge that typical MIT students pay tens of thousands of dollars to obtain. Ultimately, smart employers who find ways to identify skilled workers - rather than just checking for the expensive college credential - will play a critical role in changing the college paradigm so that students focus more on getting an education than getting a degree.

For parents and students facing tuition bills that cost nearly as much as the average home, the prospect of emerging low-cost options should be welcome news. And for everyone concerned about the federal budget - and that means everyone these days - dramatically lowering college costs would ease one burden contributing to our massive deficit.

Voters may be most concerned about jobs and the economy as they think about the next election, but they’ll also welcome new thinking - such as Mr. Perry’s higher-education proposal - about how to solve other problems that weigh on families.

Carrie Lukas is managing director of the Independent Women’s Forum.


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