Monday, November 22, 2004


Learning To Survive

Mickey Kaus raises an idea that has long intrigued me - vouchers for higher-ed (he doesn't actually call them that; it's what they are, though).

But no one has mentioned the main reason I expect them to be heavily opposed: because they would spell the end the most powerful and lucrative industrial oligopoly ever, that of higher education. Higher ed has its strengths and its weaknesses, but open it up for competition and it will by definition cease to be protected pasture.

Its costs - in the Information Age, no less - are astronomical: 4 full years of a young person's life, plus a huge debt load. It'll vary with the institution, of course, but the basic question remains: can it be done better and cheaper, meaning specifically "better for the student?"

Actually implementing vouchers would answer that question, but it's a test that I suspect many U's would rather not take. And who can - from a purely Machiavellian point of view - blame them? Why would they want to subject their industry to true competition, given the track record of other government-funded industries forced to survive in the wild? They've got it pretty good where they are (dissenters are welcome to ask their private-industry bosses for tenure and post the results in the comments section!) And politically, it could be the death-knell for the academic left.

Maybe they'll surprise me with their open-mindedness, and I'd like it if they did. But in any event, the politics involved in suppressing vouchers will be in direct proportion to higher ed's own fear of compeition. It'll be interesting to see how it unfolds, if it does.