Undermining Our Colleges: Plans for Increased Federal Involvement in Higher Education Are Likely to Lead to Federally Mandated Curricula and a Profound Change in Current College Offerings

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Quick, name the top 10 universities in the world. If you started out with Harvard, you're not alone. Likewise, if you named Columbia, Princeton, MIT, and the University of Chicago, you'd be on the right track according to the 2006 "Academic Ranking of World Universities," published annually in China by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. As a quasi-official Chinese government project, the ranking is noteworthy not so much for the individual colleges and universities on the list, but for the one characteristic most of the listed institutions share--they're private. In fact, apparently oblivious to the irony, the Chinese communist government-sponsored list says nine of the top 10 universities in the world are private. Moreover, eight of the top 10 are in the United States and seven of those are private.

The Chinese rankings correspond roughly with the findings published in the latest rankings by U.S. News & World Report. Used by millions of high-school students and their parents to evaluate colleges, the U.S. News rankings have Princeton, Harvard, and Yale as the nation's best universities and rank Williams College, Amherst College, and Swarthmore College as the top three liberal arts colleges in the nation. As with the Chinese rankings, the best of the best are private institutions. And they are not alone--the top tiers of the U.S. News rankings are filled with private colleges. The top five universities and the top five colleges in the Midwest, for instance, are private. This trend holds across the rankings. Everywhere you look in the U.S. News report, the top rankings go to private colleges and universities despite the fact that they are outnumbered by lavishly funded state-run institutions.

The performance of private institutions of higher education calls into question the efficacy of government power. If the best outcomes are achieved only through the application of government control and regulation to a particular task, then public institutions of higher learning should be far superior to their privately run counterparts. Clearly, as both general perception and the rankings from both the Chinese government and U.S. News show, this is not the case. The performance of private institutions of higher education is an embarrassment to their public counterparts and to the idea of government supervision in general. But that does not stop government from wanting to extend its control over private colleges and universities. The best way to do that is to slap federal education requirements on higher education. And that is just what's in store for the nation's system of higher education as the federal Department of Education moves to impose standards for accreditation and testing on the nation's colleges and universities.

Expanding the Federal Role

Not long ago, the Department of Education was an embattled agency. For years the Republicans promised to get rid of it. In fact, only 11 years ago, in 1996, the Republican Party platform called for the department to be abolished: "The Federal government has no constitutional authority to be involved in school curricula or to control jobs in the market place," said the GOP. "This is why we will abolish the Department of Education."

Much has changed since 1996. The department still lacks constitutional authority, but under the Bush administration it has grown into a regulatory behemoth while federal spending on education under Bush has skyrocketed. According to the historical tables accompanying the official 2008 budget documents, federal spending for the Department of Education totaled just shy of $33.5 billion in 2000 under President Clinton. Reversing decades of Republican opposition to federal education spending, the Bush administration has presided over the rapid expansion of the Education Department budget. Under Bush, in 2006 federal spending on the department reached a staggering $93.4 billion--nearly a 180 percent increase over Clinton-era spending. …