| March 7, 2013

Oh, baby! Let's get college costs under control

Jonathan V. Last, a senior writer at the Weekly Standard, has written a new book called What to Expect When No One's Expecting: America's Coming Demographic Disaster.

Hats off to whoever's in charge of the publicity apparatus — I can't tell you how many times I've seen the book mentioned in print and in cyberspace. Most notably, an essay ("America's Baby Bust ") adapted from the book was published on Feb. 1 in The Wall Street Journal. In a nutshell: “The nation's falling fertility rate is the root cause of many of our problems. And it's only getting worse.”

Americans need to start having more babies, Last says. This will require a cultural shift, but Last says public policy can help, too. “The government cannot persuade Americans to have children they do not want, but it can help them to have the children they do want.” He gives three starting points, one of which has to do with higher education.

Higher education dampens fertility in all sorts of ways. It delays marriage, incurs debt, increases the opportunity costs of childbearing, and significantly increases the expense of raising a child. If you doubt that the economics of the university system are broken, consider this: Since 1960, the real cost of goods in nearly every other sector of American life has dropped. Meanwhile, the real cost of college has increased by more than 1,000 percent.

If college were another industry, everyone would be campaigning for reform. Instead, politicians are trying to push every kid in America into the current exorbitantly expensive system. How could we get college costs under control? For one, we could begin to eliminate college's role as a credentialing machine by allowing employers to give their own tests to prospective workers. Alternately, we could encourage the university system to be more responsive to market forces by creating a no-frills, federal degree-granting body that awards certificates to students who pass exams in a given subject.

Given the importance of coalition-building in enacting policy reforms, those looking to reform higher education shouldn’t overlook some natural allies: pro-family activists, pro-lifers, and various other citizens concerned about boosting fertility.

[Cross-posted at]

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