Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Time for Some Trickle Up?

Working for the US Dept of Education last year, I encountered high officials who expressed astonishment at the disconnect between Federal influence on public education and on higher ed.  Federal influence on public schools is purchased at less than ten cents on the dollar.  Looking at the influence of IDEA, NCLB, RTT, SIG and now NCLB waivers, to name a few, the Feds leverage relatively small amounts of money for big returns.
By contrast, the federal student loan programs run by ED literally bankroll the higher ed enterprise, yet the Feds have little influence on substantive policy in higher ed, including matters like cost control, and accountability for results.  This is illustrated by the way regulations designed to limit the predations of for-profit colleges were gutted, after a vigorous lobbying effort.
Of course higher ed has something to offer policy makers that public ed lacks - sinecures.  The revolving door world of education policy is as insidious as that of defense policy.  If you were a policy maker, would you rather have your next job at a university sponsored think tank, or perhaps as a professor, or in a third grade classroom?  I'm skeptical of the prospects for meaningful higher ed reform in the context of this endemic soft corruption.
So with no meaningful prospects for accountability from universities and colleges, where does accountability fall?  Squarely on the shoulders of individuals, in the form of student loans which cannot be discharged by bankruptcy.  Cost control in higher ed may only be achievable by making student loans subject to bankruptcy again, so some of the risks of the system are again borne by the institutional players who milk the system.
I found it instructive to read What the U.S. can’t learn from Finland about ed reform by Pasi Sahlberg on the WaPo Answer Sheet.  He wrote:
"In the United States, education is mostly viewed as a private effort leading to individual good....By contrast, in Finland, education is viewed primarily as a public effort serving a public purpose."
In Finland P-12 AND higher ed is free to all residents.
The caveat emptor philosophy of higher ed funding we have in this country has saddled our most educated and ambitious citizens with a trillion dollar ball and chain which is dragging down our economy.  Had the same money that was poured into trickle down corporate bailouts been injected into the bottom of the economy as an investment in the middle class, we might have seen some real economic recovery.
30 years of bitter experience has shown us that trickle down is a vast boondoggle for the well connected.  It's time to try some trickle up economics.


  1. Do you think the Finland model can be scaled to the United States?

  2. Again, read "What the U.S. can’t learn from Finland about ed reform" by Pasi Sahlberg. The Finnish sytem is entwined with the welfare state. Unless we will marry education reform to social justice I doubt this can be scaled.