Conservative College Cheapskates

Cheap college for all!  That’s the call of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  ALEC members will consider a proposal to mandate public university education for under $10,000.  So why is this a “conservative” idea?

The conservative group’s annual meeting agenda just came out.  Members will be asked to consider several model bills about education, including two that support expansion of charter schools.  No surprise there.  Many free-market conservatives, way back to the 1950s work of free-market guru Milton Friedman, have wanted to reform education by introducing market principles.

ALEC's Get-Together

ALEC’s Get-Together

But I’m puzzled by the higher-ed model bill.  ALEC proposes the “Affordable Baccalaureate Degree Act,” a model bill that will require public universities to offer cheaper college educations.  In the words of the proposed bill,

The Affordable Baccalaureate Degree Act would require all public four-year universities to offer bachelor’s degrees costing no more than $10,000, total, for four years of tuition, fees, and books.  The Act would require that ten percent of all public, four-year university degrees awarded reach this price-point within four years of passage of this act.

To achieve this price-point, universities would be instructed to capitalize on the opportunities and efficiencies provided by (1) web-based technology and (2) competency-based programs.

Simple enough.  There has been oodles of talk lately about the problem of burgeoning student debt.  This proposal would at least introduce a new way to talk about the price and value of college education.

I don’t know the history of ALEC’s model bill, but it looks to be modeled on a similar bill in Texas.  Two years ago, Texas Governor Rick Perry—a decidedly and self-consciously “conservative” politician—introduced a similar affordable-college law.

But here’s my question: What is “conservative” about this proposal?  I know there are conservatives and then there are conservatives, but ALEC has traditionally been a champion, in its words, of “Limited Government, Free Markets, [and] Federalism.”

On first glance, it isn’t clear how this college model bill would limit government or help free markets.  Isn’t the price of college education part of a free market?  Wouldn’t a government imposition of a price cap increase the role of government and decrease the fluidity of the free market?

Here’s my hunch: The key to understanding the “conservative” elements of these bills lies in two important words, “efficiencies” and “competency.”  As I argue in my upcoming book about the history of conservative activism in education, conservatives have long looked skeptically at the way higher education has been run.  Just as conservatives have often insisted that teachers’ unions exert an unhealthy stranglehold on K-12 schooling, they have also often insisted that higher education has been taken over by sclerotic bureaucracies and leftist ideologues.

By forcing colleges and universities to offer credit for “competencies,” free-market conservatives might hope to shatter the grip of college bureaucracies.  Too often, conservatives might argue, college rules have insisted that students spend a certain amount of time in seats, parroting back academic drivel instead of learning real skills.  If students can demonstrate competency in life skills—running a business, maybe, or opening a charter school—those “competencies” should get college credit.

Similarly, by promoting “efficiencies” in higher education, free-market conservatives might hope to force lazy and pampered college faculty to use new technology to deliver information and skills more quickly and cheaply.  Since public universities are funded at least in part by government money, forcing them to run more quickly and cheaply could be seen as crucial part of conservatives’ desire to slim down big government.

That’s my guess, in any case.  To those who know their higher-education history, though, it is surprising to hear cheap public education promoted as a “conservative” cause.  During the late 1960s and early 1970s, after all, accessibility and affordability were hallmarks of leftist activism in higher education.

Perhaps the best example of this is the history of City University of New York.  During the 1920s and 1930s, CUNY, especially City College of New York, was known as the “Ivy League of the Proletariat.”  Top students crowded into CCNY, especially Jewish students excluded from Ivy League colleges.  It was an elite institution, admitting only the most qualified students.  Back then, it was also free.  If you could get in, you could go.

Do these CUNY tuition protesters look "conservative" to you?

Do these CUNY tuition protesters look “conservative” to you?

In the late 1960s, student activism forced a change in admissions policy.  To fight elitism and cultural prejudice, leftist activists pushed through an open admission policy.  Back then, it was leftist student radicals who called for cheap college for all.

Does ALEC’s model bill signal a shift?  Is it now a “conservative” cause to limit the cost of public higher education?