New Source of 'Tough Love' for Colleges

May 23, 2006

Richard K. Vedder has a lot to say about higher education, and he hasn't exactly had a problem getting heard: He writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal, has published a book about college costs and prices, and has testified before Congress on several occasions. Last fall, Vedder got a major bump in visibility when Education Secretary Margaret Spellings included him among 19 members of a federal commission to study the future of higher education, and he has taken full advantage, becoming (arguably) the panel's most outspoken and (inarguably) most entertaining member.

Vedder, a Distinguished Professor of Economics at Ohio University, is about to have another platform for his work: a new research center to study issues such as cost, efficiencty and productivity in higher education. The as-yet unnamed institute -- Vedder said he recognizes that his initial idea for a title, the Center for Higher Education Accountability and Productivity (CHEAP), was "a little cheesy" -- will be financed ($200,000 in the first year) by the Searle Freedom Trust. The trust was founded by Daniel G. Searle and funds public policy research on U.S. domestic policy with what its executive director, Kimberly O. Dennis, calls a "disposition toward policy solutions that have a free-market focus."

Searle largely funded Vedder's 2004 book, Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much, through a program at the American Enterprise Institute, and the attention that book garnered "got us thinking that there's really a lot more work to be done," says Dennis. "No one's looking into these issues, especially from the conservative side, and we wanted to support Rich's interest in trying to figure out why higher education is so expensive, and what kind of policy mechanisms we could adopt that might make it more affordable."

Vedder's book and much of his other work has focused on perceived flaws in higher education and on what he argues are the at times deleterious effects of public support for higher education -- like this passage from the introduction to Going Broke by Degree. "The arguments for public subsidies of higher education are, at the very least, highly debatable. A better than decent case can be made that perhaps government should, in general, largely get out of the higher education business, ending state subsidies and tax advantages for private donations. Moreover, the evidence is pretty persuasive that massive governmental infusions of funds, along with tax-sheltered private contributions, have contributed to the upsurge in higher education costs."

Passages like that have earned Vedder criticism in some quarters as an enemy of higher education, particularly public higher education. In a 2005 review of Vedder's book in the Journal of Labor Economics, for instance, Ronald G. Ehrenberg, an economist at Cornell University's Higher Education Research Institute, praised some of Vedder's conclusions about colleges' inefficiency and their failure to hold costs down, but essentially argued that in other places Vedder put ideology ahead of facts. "If you do read Going Broke, be careful to separate out in your own mind what is hard analysis from what is Vedder’s preconceived view on the proper role of government," he concluded. "As I have tried to indicate, many of the policy recommendations in Going Broke are based on the latter; not on the former."

Vedder bristles at that charge. "I'm not any more ideological than most of the people writing about higher ed," he says. "Most of them start with the conviction that higher education has an inherent noble good, a higher purpose, and that it should just assumed that expenditures on higher education serve a good purpose. I start with the view that traditional colleges are relatively isolated from market accountability, and I am skeptical of whether a lot of the public funding of higher education has had a good payoff.

"So I'm probably going to ask different questions than the traditional academics ask: Are we getting our money's worth out of our public investment? Despite huge growth in federal financial aid, do we have greater access among lower income students to the best universities than we did 25 years ago? Are there things traditional higher education should be learning from for-profit colleges?"

As "someone who has spent almost all the last 48 years of my life" either studying or working in higher education, Vedder also disputes the idea that he has it out for higher education.

"I'm a friend of higher education, but one who believes in tough love," says Vedder. "I love higher education, and I want to foster its vitality. But sometimes with one's own children, you have to criticize them, attack them, scream at them, discipline them. I look at higher education like a loved but sometimes troublesome child."

It's not hard to imagine that Vedder's new research center, whatever it is eventually called, might have a few spankings in store for America's colleges.

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