The Case For Federal Higher Education Policy

People are bound to debate at the margin what services should be publicly subsidized and to what extent. But voters like services and dislike taxes, so there’s always a robust market for trying to fudge the idea that less subsidization means lower levels of service. One frequent dodge here is federalism, whereby you sort of wave around the idea of state government as a way to evade the issue at hand. To wit, via Kevin Carey comes the thinking of Rep Virginia Foxx of North Carolina:

Q. More generally, you have said you don’t believe there’s an appropriate role for the federal government in higher education. How far do you think the current, fairly significant role can — or should — be rolled back?

A. The federal government’s involvement in higher education can and should be scaled back gradually in the coming years. Ideally we’d be able to reduce the burdensome federal bureaucracy and delegate much of the funding and policy decision making to state governments. This would help to foster better solutions to the specific issues confronting higher education and provide improved accountability for taxpayer dollars.

This is doubly nonsense. For one thing, as Carey argues if you devolved responsibility for research spending decisions to state governments then instead of “improved accountability” what you’d find is that each state government wants to fund research at home state universities. For an equal dollar amount of spending, we’d get less value.


More generally, I for one think labor mobility and social mobility are excellent things. If a poor kid from Detroit manages to get into the University of Michigan, graduate, and go get a good job in Chicago or New York or Atlanta or Houston then that’s an American success story. And it’s something officials responsible for education policy in Michigan shouldn’t be afraid of — the long-term decline of automobile industry employment isn’t something they’re responsible for or able to change. But it’s naturally that Michigan public officials will to an extent overweight the interests of Michigan qua Michigan relative to those of Michigan residents. If you tried to entirely devolve responsibility onto the states, then you’d find economically declining areas allocating a larger and larger share of a shrinking pool of resources to a kind of desperate effort to prevent people from leaving the area rather than giving them the skills that will best suit them in life.