The basic idea is to give more student aid to colleges that admit more disadvantaged students, that show progress in lowering costs and raising scholarships, and that shepherd students to earn a degree.

So says The New York Times about President Obama’s newly-minted agenda to lower the costs of “higher” education and level the playing field for all rungs of the socio-economic ladder.  And we have to admit that we agree that the president’s prescription is “basic,” although we may quarrel just how much of an “idea” might be found there.

Let’s take it apart:

“…give more student aid to colleges that admit more disadvantaged students…”

A fine idea.  Whose aid shall we take it from?  Advantaged students?  Don’t we pretty much assume that most college aid goes to those who need it?  Okay, what about athletes?  I’ll concede that one — if you want to ban all athletic scholarships and dedicate the funds to needier kids, fine.  But:

a.  good luck with that one, even if you’re the president.

b.  most of those getting athletic scholarships — in case you hadn’t noticed — seem to come from the poorer parts of town already, unless they are young women whose recruitment is driven by the requirements of Title 9, which mandates an equal distribution of athletic scholarships among male and female students.

Or do we simply increase the amount of federal aid?  Fantastic.  Student debt already exceeds all credit card debt; what finer way to ensure a promising and rewarding future for your children than to add a zero or two to it?

Well, maybe we should just say that colleges, when faced with a choice between a full-tuition prospect and a less affluent applicant — all other things being more or less equal — they should give the nod to the needy kid, and we’ll figure out how to pay for it somehow.  This might do something down the road to help equalize opportunities across all income bands, or it might not — but it’s a start, right?

But we’ve already been through this, based on race, not need, and the notion that one candidate should have an advantage over another because of income disparity is  as unfair as its opposite.  This isn’t a solution; instead of eliminating unfairness, it just inverts it.

…that show progress in lowering costs and raising scholarships…

Uh huh?  How?  Are college professors overpaid?  Some may think so, but they comprise a relatively small percentage of the payroll, which is largely peopled by administrators, teaching fellows, maintenance workers and other staff, whom no one would accuse of being well-compensated.  While the professorial ranks often do achieve salaries in the six-figure area, would you really have it otherwise?  Something has to induce some, if only a small part, of our best and brightest to dedicate themselves to scholarship other than outright altruism.  And although you can make a case that a few privileged academics obtain very handsome incomes from outside consultancies, books, et. al., that’s a relative handful. A better case can be made for demanding more actual teaching time from the senior faculty, but that’s another story.

As for raising scholarships, gawd-a-mercy.  Again, how?  If there is one thing we definitely do not want to see, it is an increase in the now-constant demands alumni receive from their almae mater for ever-greater contributions.  We get emails, Facebook promos, even tweets that now supplement what seems like a weekly solicitation in the mail.  Scholarships are largely funded by alumni/ae donations.  Believe me, schools are already near the breaking point in their clamor for them.

And finally, the best of all:

“…colleges…that shepherd students to earn a degree.”

You have to be kidding me.  Do we now propose to take the same flamethrower to our universities that we have used so effectively to torch our high schools?  Basing support on graduation rates has given us an education system that systematically awards high school diplomas to graduates with 8th grade reading and math skills.  A stunning percentage of students arriving at college already have to spend at least one year simply acquiring basic literacy in math and English; in New York City community colleges, the figure is over 70%.

It may be lamentable that many who — often unadvisedly — enter college fail to complete it, and, although absent a degree, retain much of its attendant debt.  I’m not going to say that maybe they shouldn’t have been there in the first place, because frankly, I shouldn’t have to.  But “shepherding” them?  Colleges of any repute have ample counseling for students in difficulty — financial, emotional or educational.  But tying the amount of federal support a college or university gets to its graduation rate does not just induce fraud; it coerces it.  Have we not ample precedent already?  Do we really want to start reading about professors being pressured to give failing students passing grades “for the good of the school and everyone in it?”  Can’t we restrict that kind of thing to the football and basketball teams, where it belongs?  And as for shepherds, let’s try not to turn students into sheep.  We have enough of those already.

Still, the Times thinks that something must be done, as it puts it, “to leverage the government’s power and get Washington off the sidelines.”  Shit oh dear!  Please, please, not that!

It’s the government’s “leverage” that has done more than any other single thing to push college costs as high as they are.   It’s simple math:  colleges charge as much as they can for admission.  It’s a market rate.  As the feds flooded the country with cheap student loans, and more and more money chased a limited supply of classroom seats, prices went up, and continued going up until, today, the annual cost of tuition, room and board alone at a top-tier university is over $50,000.  Not many parents can afford that, but they don’t have to pay it — because their kids can borrow it and pay it back later from the anticipated bonanzas they will earn once they get their degrees.  If you can spot a flaw in this logic, you’re not alone.

Here’s the good news.  Like so much else out of D.C., and the Executive mansion in particular, all this talk is just that.  There will be a deafening hurricane of sound, as Mark Twain put it, and then an eerie silence, as once again the waters of the deep slide over the chasm, and the political classes find a new straw man to frighten us with, using much of the same rhetoric.  The “crisis” of educational costs will be solved, not by the government, but by the relentless and irresistible pressures of reality.  Cue the sheep.  Baa baa baa.