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Surveillance Isn’t The Solution To America’s College Woes


Some of my right-leaning heroes (insofar as politicians are worthy of being heroes) are ganging up with other politicos to support the dull-sounding but pernicious policy of a federal unit-record system for higher education. The skinny: This bugger would expand federal cradle-to-grave surveillance of we, the people, and further centralize our already micromanaged economy. And Rep. Paul Ryan, Sen. Marco Rubio, and Rep. Mia Love are leading cosponsors. Jigga what?

A “unit record” system is basically a one-stop, portable data profile of every person who enters higher education. The idea is to make it easier for government to track, and eventually influence, who enters what field of study and subsequent career. To justify this monstrosity, the press release from Love and Co. echoes widespread complaints about how a college degree (and its accompanying debt) doesn’t necessarily lead to a job that can help students pay off that debt as comfortably as they’d like. We’ve all heard that, right?

Earlier this year, for example, President Obama said, while promoting job and manufacturing training: “[A] lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career. But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” Florida Gov. Rick Scott recently encapsulated the general Republican view: “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

The Federalist recently explored what’s philosophically wrong with these views when Gov. Scott Walker demanded earlier this year that Wisconsin universities focus more on output and workforce preparation. For the record, I’m in the Peter Lawler camp of “education is about way more than generating robots to push buttons in the economy so politicians have more tax dollars to waste on further engineering society into oblivion.” But since he thought through the underlying ideas better than I can, just go read his article. Here, let’s discuss the political problem with a unit-record system as a potential solution to the very real problem that America’s higher-education system is certainly consuming millions if not billions of dollars that never benefit the individuals using them, let alone the rest of us, who provide them.

What Is a Unit-Record System?

The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act of 2015 would eliminate the federal ban on a unit-record system and demand that colleges send the federal government more information about students so federal bureaucrats can connect and expand several existing government and private data systems. The idea is to track kids through college and into the workforce to find what majors in what schools lead to what jobs and incomes. But that’s not the half of it.

We’re talking about accelerating the already-in-progress federal surveillance system over education and the economy.

The text of the bill indicates that the U.S. Education Secretary can tap whatever agencies he wants to mix and match this data. Smooth—if one is all aboard with letting unelected bureaucrats control what information the feds collect about American citizens who, remember, are supposed to boss government, not get bossed by it. Previous iterations of unit-record proposals have included these agencies and databases: federal student loans; the federal college student registry (IPEDS, in which all full-time students who attend colleges that accept federal funds are already tracked); K-12 data systems the Obama administration has paid every state to expand and link other non-education state and federal agencies, including social services, employment, health, and criminal justice; and income monitoring agencies such as the Social Security Administration and U.S. Department of Labor.

So we’re really not talking merely about letting people know that 82 percent of people who major in economics at Whatever College are employed in their field within two years and earning an average of $67,000 after ten. (Which, by the way, colleges can tell prospective students already and have been able to do for decades using this little, voluntary thing called “alumni surveys.”) We’re talking about accelerating the already-in-progress (PDF) federal surveillance system over education and the economy.

Frank Balz of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities summarizes the enduring opposition to a unit-record system: “the act of enrolling in college, even if for a single course, should not require permanent entry into a federal registry. No proposals allow individuals either to opt into or out of the data base, or even to be informed of its existence. Postsecondary institutions also have the legitimate concern that the existence of such a massive registry will prove irresistible to future demands for use and expansion beyond educational purposes.”

What I Do With My Degree Is My Business

The bottom line is that a unit-record system is an unacceptable trade of crucial liberties for a convenience that is available through entirely non-coercive means. There is no justification for enabling federal administrators to create comprehensive dossiers on American citizens detailing our entire education, social, and economic history (down to that first-quarter history quiz grade in fifth grade and records of our ability to pee properly in preschool). It’s just none of their damn business. Ever.

There is no justification for enabling federal administrators to create comprehensive dossiers on American citizens, including our ability to pee properly in preschool.

If I want to get a degree in anthropology and follow it by spending the rest of my life building earthen houses by hand and composting my own poo, it’s none of their damn business, either. “I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul.” (Sentiments brought to you courtesy of my “useless” but so far quite lucrative English major.) It’s the Chinese government that keeps detailed dossiers on all its citizens, which furthers its policy of economic and social planning and enforces citizen compliance. In America, we’re supposed to do things differently. Government doesn’t mind our business. We mind our own business, and our own business includes government.

So why do “even Republicans” think what people choose to do in college or the workplace is their business? They’ve accepted the premises of the permanent welfare state, in which we are all on the government dole and therefore all subject to the same insulting paternalism and privacy invasion as welfare queens. Think back to Rick Scott: “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs.” Since when is it government’s business to create jobs? Government can only destroy jobs. It can’t create them. Individuals create jobs—when government doesn’t ban them, regulate them into insanity, or tax them to redistribute the fruits of their labor to people it’s decided to prioritize instead.

This is markets 101, people. Scott’s essentially espousing Keynsianism, the insane idea that the way to boost the economy is to take money from productive people, filter it through a pile of bureaucrats, and redistribute the remainder to privileged populations. And nobody calls him on it because we’re all swimming in the same water. We’re hoping he and our other political demigods will deign to designate us a privileged population instead of telling them to cut it the heck out and let people rise or fall by their own efforts.

What Problem Is a Unit-Record System Trying to Solve?

So the real question is: Why is federal pressure necessary to make colleges do something that is clearly in potential college-goers’ self-interest? The simple answer is, a critical mass of college goers don’t think examining the value-added of a particular degree is important. It sounds crazy, but there’s no other explanation. If enough people attending college demanded to know what was in it for them economically, colleges would provide that information (just as some already do), because they’d have to do so to keep enrollment and thus dollars. This is also econ 101.

So what’s wrong? I’m going to argue for several converging problems. Feel welcome to suggest more in the comments.

Anyone who has a pulse can get into community college, and therefore anyone with a pulse can get your tax dollars to pay for it.

There’s always the possibility that America’s undergraduates are more concerned with enlarging and beautifying their souls than they are with making money. Excuse me while I wipe blinding tears of laughter from my eyes. So, next: Most college students receive federal money, as loans, grants, or both. This means they’re wagering with other people’s money, not their own, or even their family’s.

We all know that how we spend other people’s money is radically different than how we will spend our own. Congress is perhaps the most trenchant example of this. And the Obama administration has done a lot to pin even more student debt to taxpayers, thus expanding moral hazard (e.g., loose spending of easy money from other people). We’re talking debt “forgiveness” to the tune of an estimated $14 billion per year just for one program. This is just plain fiscal madness.

Second, federal subsidies go to students regardless of their academic track record. Anyone who has a pulse can get into community college, and therefore anyone with a pulse can get your tax dollars to pay for it. Estimates say the college graduation rate for recipients of the federal Pell Grant, which is intended for low-income families but actually makes its way to many middle-income families, is 40 percent. Yes, two-thirds of kids getting your money through this program never net a degree (and it’s well demonstrated that dropping out before getting a degree results in essentially no economic benefits). This is more madness. The reason why should be obvious, but if you need a hint here’s a picture of who should not be eligible for money forced from working people’s pockets:

AnimalHouseThe third converging factor is our society’s cruel insistence that college is the only potential path to a career, despite reams of evidence this isn’t true. We all just assume that a college degree will result in a desirable job. People don’t typically feel the need to prove what everyone around them assumes is a self-evident truth. Given that this is not true, as admitted unit-record system proponents (remember, it’s their major justification for making this sweeping change), it’s a cruel illusion to perpetuate. But leaders up to and including President Obama continue to do so.

The answer to a broken arm is not to chop it off. Likewise, the answer to our mess of a higher education system is not to add another layer of FUBAR. That’s what this bill would do. Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, and Mia Love need to stop smoking leftist crack and, once their eyes clear, start pushing bills that solve higher ed’s actual problem. I’ve got a big hint even someone with a college degree can understand. The problem’s name starts with “federal” and ends with “government.”