Tuesday, October 24, 2006

National Commissions and Hammers

In a post for Inside Higher Education)this morning a professor at Hamilton argues that national commissions are not as effective as they could be. He suggests a change in approach.

Professor Paris argues "Higher education would have been better served by the Commission disseminating information about what really works and emphasizing the broader purposes of education. Certainly higher education is becoming a necessity for access to many jobs, and the economic premium attached to having a degree is well documented."

National Commissions are often formed when politicians lack the resolve to study a question thoroughly enough. Often it comes with an issue where they think they can score short term points. Increasingly they are used as a pressure valve in the political system. Unfortunately, most if not all also start with the proverbial attention that is paid by the person with a hammer in his hand - everything looks like a nail. In this case, the nail is almost always increased governmental intervention. In most cases increased governmental interventions are likely to produce contrary results.

A good example was the National Commission on College Costs, on which I served in 1997. For most of the last 70 years the rate of increase in the price of higher education has exceeeded the change in the consumer price index by something greater than 1.5% compounded. There are a lot of good reasons why that has happened. There are also some less compelling reasons. In the last decade that problem has been seen as more acute. That has been in part as a result of the increasing complexity of the financial transaction that students and families are being asked to make, as well as some organizational questions that colleges need to address (the organization of colleges and universities is less like an efficient organization than it should be). One of the vexing things about this issue is that no college student ever pays the full cost of the education they receive - so there is a difference between price and cost. That is a hard concept to get but it is critical to understanding what the appropriate pricing mechanism should be. The College Cost Commission was formed and was asked to come to some conclusions about why these trends were happening and how to solve the question in 120 days. We had some pretty bright people on the Commission and they worked pretty hard for those four months. The report concluded that costs were indeed rising and pointed out some interesting examples of some institutions who were doing some things to reduce costs or prices. It also created a taxonomy (Cost, Price, Net Price (price less aid), and Subsidy) which are helpful in thinking about the college cost issue. The sponsors of the Commission were for the most part grumpy with the conclusions. Our commission refused to come up with the pre-ordained conclusions that our political sponsors were expecting.

During the time that we have had a series of national reports on education - from A Nation at Risk (1983) to the Spellings Commission this year - we have been presented with a series of reports bewailing the state of education. During that same time the costs of Congress have grown dramatically while the deliberative nature of the body has diminished. The quality of public discourse has diminished significantly. There are plenty of explanations - from our gerrymandered congressional districts, to the constant rent seeking of politicians (their first role is to get re-elected), to a number of other factors. The esteem that politicians are held in has continued to diminish, for good reason.

Secretary Spellings Commission seemed to start with some preordained conclusions. Higher education seemed to respond to those preordained conclusions in predictable ways. Paris' idea about providing incentives to get higher education to think more creatively about how to improve those things that need to be improved is a good one. Any institution in society can improve, but politicians seem to think the best way to achieve that improvement is with a hammer. Perhaps, they could use the same values and methodology to think about how to improve the legislative processs, or would that be too much to ask?

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