President Biden released his 2022 budget proposal on Friday, which calls for spending over $6 trillion next year and running trillion-dollar annual deficits for the next decade at least. The Department of Education would get the largest spending boost of any major federal agency. Biden proposes increasing base education spending by 41% in 2022, as overall spending rises "only" 9%.
Biden's big-spending inclinations are well-known, but his designs for higher education are unusually lavish. Among the proposals:
- $109 billion over ten years to make community college free (to the student)
- $84 billion over ten years to increase the Pell Grant by $1,875
- $83 billion over ten years for college affordability and completion initiatives
- $12 billion over eight years for community college infrastructure
Implicit in these priorities is the assumption that higher education's problems are mostly the result of too little spending. But the United States spends more than most other countries on college. Community colleges, the target of most of Biden's new spending, are already quite affordable.
The real problem in our higher education system is quality: too many students don't finish their degrees, and too many of those who do graduate end up with low-value credentials that don't justify the time and money spent to earn them. As I wrote last month about Biden's free community college plan:
More money for colleges won’t work without the right carrots and sticks to ensure that money is spent wisely. Policymakers can start by leveraging existing federal spending on student aid to encourage better results from colleges. Support for schools should be contingent on good outcomes, such as high earnings and reasonable loan-repayment rates. Colleges which find innovative ways to improve those outcomes will attract more students, and with them more federal aid dollars.
Senate procedure makes it easier to enact spending increases than new accountability rules. More spending is also easier politically: colleges and their lobbyists love more money, but not when it comes with strings attached. But money alone cannot solve the problems in our higher education system. Let's hope it doesn't take several hundred billion dollars in new spending for politicians to finally grasp that.