Both Alexanders are Wrong

September, 2015

Washington -- The Washington Monthly magazine has published the best policy analysis yet in this cycle of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. In noteworthy reportage, New America writer Alex Holt incisively describes the shifting policy ground under both Democrats and Republicans and gives reason for hope that this cycle will result in urgently needed changes to the HEA. Current policy is clearly unsustainable; both political parties must back away from the orthodoxies that have undermined the worthy goals set forth in the HEA five decades ago.

Holt explores the issues by focusing on two of the more outspoken advocates in this cycle, F. King Alexander, president of Louisiana State University, and Lamar Alexander, chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. The two Alexanders (not related) are fundamentally opposed to each other on many counts. Allow me to point out where I think each is wrong.

Lamar Alexander is wrong in making federal over-regulation of higher education his bĂȘte noire. Indeed, there is federal overregulation, but much of it has come about because of faulty program designs that do not employ the tools of fiscal federalism to limit the need for regulation. For example, had states and institutions been required to match (the current fad is to say "have skin in the game") federal aid to students at for-profit schools, there most likely would have been no need for the Gainful Employment regulation. State legislatures would not have put up the funds for these shoddy and often corrupt colleges. Friends of these schools in Congress gave the country this costly fiasco; Lamar Alexander needs only to look in the mirror to see who is behind the impetus for the regulations.

Reporters at The Chronicle of Higher Education have also done an admirable job of unmasking a study of the cost of federal regulations in higher education. The study has been a centerpiece prop for Lamar Alexander's attack on regulations. It turns out the study did not show what Lamar Alexander said it did. Last time I checked, the authors of the study were so embarrassed by it they continued to refuse to share it fully with Chronicle reporters.

King Alexander, of LSU, may be right about the need for maintenance-of-effort requirements (a tool of fiscal federalism), but he is wrong about wanting to remove HEA aid to students at private, non-profit institutions. Reform the way aid is distributed, yes; eliminate it, no.

Private non-profit institutions are essential to the country. They educate, at less cost to taxpayers than public colleges, a significant share of students. Their faculties are diverse and not under the thumbs of public governing boards, which historically have demonstrated susceptibility to pressures of money and politics. Many of these institutions are in the small towns and cities of America and are a civilizing influence in their communities. For a higher education leader, King Alexander is remarkably wrong in his understanding of how American higher education serves the country and how both public and private institutions are necessary checks on each other.

Thanks are due The Washington Monthly and Alex Holt for the article that illuminates emerging policy issues and reveals the curious and wrongful thinking of the two Alexanders.