Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) for August 31, 2008 - Our System of Higher Education

Posted on August 31, 2008

As thousands of Tennessee students head back to school this month after their summer breaks, I am reminded of just how important a strong education system is to our way of life. American schools have their strengths and weaknesses, but there can be no doubt that our country’s education system is a secret weapon in the effort to maintain a brainpower advantage over other nations. This is no small issue. Our education advantage is key to preventing jobs from moving overseas and preserving a high standard of living for all Americans. Tennesseans, like all Americans, want our students to get a quality K-12 education and then have the option of attending the college or university of their choice. And the United States doesn’t just have the best colleges and universities in the world. We have almost all of them. The rest of the world is busy trying to emulate the American system of higher education, which means creating more autonomy, more choices, and competition. We must make sure that everyone is given the opportunity to attend college at an affordable rate. Tuitions are on the rise though, and some of that can be traced to government action. Government overregulation is damaging our higher education system and putting more strain on family budgets. We are cluttering up higher education with the same cumbersome bureaucratic nonsense that has stifled excellence at universities in other parts of the world. Currently, the stack of rules and regulations with which our 6,000 institutions of higher education must comply is almost as tall as I am when the law books are stacked up. The greatest threat to our education system is not underfunding; it is overregulation. I recently opposed the higher education bill (H.R. 4137) for just that reason: it imposes too many costly regulations on our schools. This legislation meant to address rising tuition costs would actually increase tuition for most American families. These government mandates do not come cost free, and most often American families are stuck with the bill. It is especially ironic that the very members of Congress who complain the most about rising tuition costs fail to see that, at least for public institutions, the congressmen themselves are the cause of the rising costs. What members of Congress seem to be missing is that the principal reason state support is down is because Congress gives states so many unfunded mandates that there is not much left for higher education. When the governors and legislatures are through paying for the mandates sent down from Washington, there is very little left for higher education. Congress needs to start along two completely different tracks so we can retain the autonomy, competition, and choice that has led to the quality of and access to American higher education. First, we need to deregulate, not overregulate, higher education. Cut this stack of rules and regulations in half and use the time and the money for students and for academic excellence. Second, we need to stop loading state budgets with so many unfunded federal mandates. Maintaining autonomy, competition, and choice in our higher education system is key to keeping us on the cutting edge. I hope Congress will address this issue by cutting regulations and halting unfunded federal mandates. Our students and our country need a strong and dynamic higher education system, not one bogged down by government regulations. ###