Though both Republicans and Democrats have participated in the political pandering that created the higher-education bubble, Democrats have less room to maneuver in seeking reform. As with K-12 education, the universities that profit from current arrangements are the Democratic Party's constituents. President Barack Obama's approach has been to forgive outright the debt of students who work for the government, thereby increasing the burden on taxpayers (most of whom did not attend college).
The sky-high cost of college is a worry for many middle-class families. (Have you seen the financial advisers' ads targeting parents of newborns?) Republicans are likely to have the reform field to themselves for a while.
Mitch Daniels, who taught the Republican Party valuable lessons in management as a successful and highly popular two-term governor of Indiana, is now doing the same for academia as president of Purdue University.
For the third year in a row, Purdue has frozen tuition rates. President Daniels (I know, it has a nice ring to it, but let that go) explained how he did it. As USA Today explained, "There was no secret sauce, just a little sensible pruning that would be ordinary in the business world but seems alien in much of academia, where a steady flow of federal aid guarantees a steady flow of students at seemingly any price." Purdue consolidated some of its administrative positions. It chose a higher-deductible health care plan. It cut food service costs by switching providers and hiring part-time students to do work formerly performed by full-time employees. It short, it acted as if cared about consumer, i.e., student satisfaction.
Republican governors of Texas, Wisconsin and Florida have called for $10,000 degrees at their public universities. Not $10,000 per year, but $10,000 total, which would return college, inflation-adjusted, to what it cost in the 1970s.
Kamenetz urges that a combination of online courses, fewer nonacademic perks, cutting administrative bloat and focusing on graduation, not just enrollment rates, would make college what it should be -- a boon for the poor and middle class. The current system, which burdens taxpayers, graduates and -- most painfully -- dropouts, with massive debt is uneconomic, unjust and unsustainable.