Howard Dean's Class Action

Inside the Bitter Wars of Higher Education

"At the end of the day, money is the biggest concern for an awful lot of minority students," says Becky Timmons of the American Council on Education. "It's nationwide, and it's across the board. [Minority students] frequently don't recognize that there is help available, and they know their own circumstances make it difficult to consider college."

Underpinning Dean's strategy is another simple, important premise: The responsibility to provide equal access to education—once the province of the federal government, but in recent years left to institutions—should be returned to the government.

Howard Dean: College, anyone?
photo: John Pettitt /
Howard Dean: College, anyone?

Of course, not everyone welcomes a bigger federal role in higher education.

"The problem is," says Richard Vedder, a professor of economics at Ohio University, "we drop all this money on kids before they go to college. We increase the demand for higher education and this aggravates the market, pushing up the price [of tuition]."

"Tuition fees have been rising past the rate of inflation every year since 1981," says Vedder, who is writing a book for the American Enterprise Institute on the cost explosion in higher education. He says his research has found that state spending on higher education has a negative impact on income growth.

"Strongly negative," he notes.

Vedder's claim, if true, undermines one of the strongest arguments for getting everyone to college—the idea that higher education is an investment in the future.

"I guess what happens is we take money away from the private sector, and we use it to subsidize a governmental activity that has proven to be inefficient," says Vedder. Despite this view, he admits to liking at least one aspect of the Dean proposal.

"It puts money in the hands of students—or consumers," Vedder says, noting that it strongly resembles the voucher systems used in private schools.

"You find a college that fits your income level, and you make it work," says Casey Lartigue, an education policy fellow at the Cato Institute. But Lartigue needs more details of Dean's plan. "It's like a lot of election-year pledges: all preamble and no constitution." In general, he says, "When you subsidize something, costs go up. When you subsidize, people delay their decisions." Howard Dean is betting the decisions will go his way.

« Previous Page