We need fewer colleges, argues one expert

'Now is the time for the federal government to exert a role in this non-federal system'

Writing in the Washington Post, Jeffrey Selingo argues that the federal government should use Higher Education Act reauthorization as an opportunity to clean up the oversaturated American college market.

The U.S. higher education system operates more as individual "little fiefdoms" held afloat by federal and state subsidies and grants, contends Selingo, an Arizona State University law professor. While some schools remain financially healthy and academically strong, others are grappling with falling enrollments, poor alumni job placement rates, and graduates with high student debt. 

"In most markets, such bad players would simply go away, driven out by more efficient and less-expensive options," Selingo writes.

But federal and state government subsidies and tax breaks hold up the higher education system, he says. And the schools themselves control the accreditation system, which controls colleges' access to those vital funds, Selingo writes. At some colleges, government subsidies account for nearly 90% of revenue.

"Costs are spiraling out of control and quality is declining," he says. "Now is the time for the federal government to exert a role in this non-federal system."

Complicating the issue is that as the industry grew—unregulated by the federal government—colleges and universities popped up across the nation in a somewhat uneven manner. Now, as the population of potential students grows in the South and West, many schools remain clustered in the Northeast and Midwest.

Policymakers should use the "perfect opportunity" of the Higher Education Act's reauthorization to create a federal commission much like the one that closes military bases. This group would recommend schools for closure—but also suggest mergers and alliances that may make institutions stronger, he says.

It remains difficult to shut down colleges. Alumni fight it—and politicians do not want the moniker of being the lawmaker who closed a large employer in the region. But athletic conferences and the University Innovation Alliance have shown that on both the sports field and in the classroom—these alliances can work, he says.

"Such collaborations are no longer limited to colleges in close proximity because of advances in technology," Selingo says (Selingo, "Grade Point," Washington Post, 7/22).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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