At the same time, the cost of a four-year college degree has ballooned. For the middle class, an average year of tuition is roughly half of household income. So both students and parents borrow massively to purchase a degree that can cost as much as a house, knowing it has diminishing value and used to cost less. It is not a wrong decision, but hardly a satisfying one. “In a modern, knowledge-based economy,” says Paul Taylor of Pew, “the only thing more expensive than going to college is not going to college.”
But the fact that college costs have risen faster than nearly any other good or service is not a law of nature. Higher education is a failing market, in which most of the incentives are set toward higher tuitions and higher borrowing. The student loan system makes it easier for students to pay more than they can afford and so for schools to charge more than they are worth, while the accreditation system restricts experiments with new methods of teaching and learning.
Market-oriented conservatives should be coming up with ideas to shift the incentives of the system, rather than continuing to inflate the bubble with additional debt. Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, have set out proposals that would widen the accreditation process for lower-priced educational alternatives and increase the data given to students about potential earnings in various fields -- allowing them to make an informed decision about incurring debt. It is a start. Barely.
For Republicans, the issue of higher education is emblematic. There are a number of vital but creaky social systems — elementary and secondary education, health care, the tax code, the immigration system, the social safety net — in need of serious, market-based reform. A party of innovation, redesign and repair might have considerable appeal. It would, among other good things, directly address many of the concerns of the working and middle class.
But a party of opposition, faux populism and reflexive anti-government ideology is not up this task. Given our level of institutional dysfunction, the country needs Republicans to be a source of solutions.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP