The devastating question that was asked of the vacuous Gary Hart during the 1984 Democratic primaries was "Where's the beef?" In that spirit, John Kerry could be asked today: "Where's the misery?"
Desperately trying to prove that economic conditions in a booming economy that has created nearly a million jobs in the past three months justify his dire Depression-era rhetoric, Kerry has crafted his own "misery index." The old misery index added the unemployment rate to the inflation rate. By that standard, President Bush is an economic genius on par with the great Bill Clinton (Bush's index is 8.7 percent, Clinton's was 8.5 percent in 1996). So, Kerry came up with a new formula for the index that doesn't include inflation but instead just those few items that happen to be getting much more expensive, most importantly rising college tuition.
"George Bush is pricing thousands of young people right out of the American dream," Kerry said in April. According to Kerry's campaign, "Rising tuitions often mean that students have to drop out and others cannot afford to come." The campaign touted a 13.4 percent tuition increase by Ohio State University for the 2004-2005 school year as yet more evidence of Bush's depredations against aspiring college students.
Put aside the fact that George Bush doesn't himself set the tuition at any universities. The entire premise of this line of Kerry attack is still mistaken. Almost no one pays official tuition rates, and college tuition has become more affordable in recent years, not less. A report in USA Today found that the amount students pay public universities has fallen by a third since 1998. "In fact," according to the paper, "today's students have enjoyed the greatest improvement in college affordability since the GI Bill provided benefits for returning World War II veterans."
One would think that this constitutes what the Kerry campaign welcomes only through gritted teeth -- good news. At public universities, students are paying roughly 27 percent of the official tuition price. Students pay more at private schools, but private tuition actually paid has gone up only 7 percent during the past five years, less than the 20 percent rise in the official price.
It is positively raining college aid, meaning students are in a tight competition with the elderly over who can be more pampered by government. Georgia began a program in 1993 to pay full tuition to state universities for students who had a B average in high school. Thirteen states have created similar programs. Eight new federal tuition tax breaks have been created since 1997. Total federal and state financial aid hit a record $49 billion in 2003, according to USA Today.
The game for universities is obvious -- hike official tuition rates ever higher. Then everyone thinks students cannot afford college and plies them with more aid, which ends up lining the pockets of the schools. It's one of the great scams of our time, and Kerry has been happy to play along by hyping nominal tuition increases and promising yet more aid. He is the dream candidate of greedy college administrators.
The problem isn't that students hungry for knowledge are being frozen out from college, but the opposite. Marginal students take their generous aid and go to colleges that don't teach them. Eighty percent of universities aren't selective, e.g. more or less happy to accept anyone who shows up with a check. Only 37 percent of first-time freshmen graduate in four years, and only 60 percent graduate in six years. Universities are happy to take money from unprepared students and fail them right back out, or dumb down their standards to stay on the government-aid gravy train.
Meanwhile, Kerry's jury-rigged misery index needs another adjustment. "Soaring tuition costs," as the Kerry campaigns puts it, shouldn't cut it anymore as scare rhetoric. Well, there is always the price of gas, another component of Kerry's index. But it has dropped a little and might well fall further with the end of summer. So, Mr. Kerry, where's the misery?