If insanity is doing the same thing again and again but expecting a different outcome, then the federal government's strategy for keeping higher education affordable is crazier than Norman Bates.
For decades, American politicians have waxed passionate on the need to put college within every family's reach. To ensure that anyone who wants to go to college will be able to foot the bill, Washington has showered hundreds of billions of dollars into student aid of all kinds -- grants and loans, subsidized work-study jobs, tax credits and deductions. Today, that shower has become a monsoon. As Neal McCluskey points out in a Cato Institute white paper, government outlays intended to hold down the price of a college degree have ballooned, in inflation-adjusted dollars, from $29.6 billion in 1985 to $139.7 billion in 2010: an increase of 372 percent since Ronald Reagan's day.
Most of that prodigious growth is very recent. The College Board, which tracks each type of financial assistance in a comprehensive annual report, shows total federal aid soaring by more than $100 billion in the space of a single decade -- from $64 billion in 2000 to $169 billion in 2010. (The College Board's data, unlike Cato's, includes higher-education tax credits and deductions.)
And what have we gotten for this vast investment in college affordability? Colleges that are more unaffordable than ever.
Year in, year out, Washington bestows tuition aid on students and their families. Year in, year out, the cost of tuition surges, galloping well ahead of inflation. And year in, year out, politicians vie to outdo each other in promising still more public subsidies that will keep higher education within reach of all. Does it never occur to them that there might be a cause-and-effect relationship between the skyrocketing aid and the skyrocketing price of a college education? That all those grants and loans and tax credits aren't containing the fire, but fanning it?
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