Another Perspective

President Obama’s Odd Example

Contrary to what he told Congress, federal aid to public higher education did very "inhibit" the role of private colleges and universities in American life.

By 9.11.09

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In my study of America's system of higher education, I have never seen it compared to health care. Thus, when reading President Obama's health care speech last night, I was surprised to find him making reference to higher education to make an important point. The problem is that if President Obama's speechwriter knew anything about the history of higher education, he or she would realize that his example actually supports the fears of the President's opponents.

Obama's reference occurred while making a point about his non-profit public health insurance option. He claimed, the option "would also keep pressure on private insurers to keep their policies affordable and treat their customers better, the same way public colleges and universities provide additional choice and competition to students without in any way inhibiting a vibrant system of private colleges and universities."

Historically speaking, the last portion of Obama's closing statement is misleading. Undoubtedly, America enjoys a vibrant system of private colleges and universities. The public system also clearly serves to provide choice and competition. Nonetheless, to claim that the federal government's support of the public option did not "in any way" inhibit the development of private education is both disingenuous and contrary to the facts. Federal funding of the public education option radically altered America's higher education landscape.

In the early 1800s before the federal 1862 Morrill Act, private universities enrolled over 90 percent of the students in education. The federal government's support of public education that the Morrill Act initiated changed that dominance. The change, however, did not occur quickly. Even in the 1940s, there were still more students in private higher education than in public, but by 1952 public university enrollments would overtake private enrollments. Today, public universities enroll seventy-four percent of the student population. Public universities, which once were a minority educational option, now control three-fourths of higher education.

This change clearly had benefits. The expanded public options subsidized by tax dollars made higher education more affordable to a wider range of students. It also, however, reduced private higher education to a minority player in the market. Over the years private higher education has been forced to change significantly in light of this new reality.

President Obama claims that the impact of his legislation "shouldn't be exaggerated." Yet, if one makes long-term predictions based on the example he provided, it is no exaggeration to say that this legislation could prove a historic turning point in the same manner as the Morrill Acts.

Furthermore, if the public health care option follows the example of higher education, one could expect that it will blossom into the primary and dominant option. In addition, while there may be a vibrant private option, if higher education serves as any guide, it will only be for those wealthy enough to afford it or those with particular sorts or intellectual, moral or religious convictions about health care. What will be a major difference is that it is doubtful scholarships and financial aid for the private option will be available. Perhaps, certain businesses will offer elite private plans to attract job applicants.

Thus, if President Obama is going to use public higher education as an example, he should be honest about this long-term possibility. He should also rethink his complaints about Republicans, "making wild claims about a government takeover of health care." While the government may not literally take over health care, claims that the government will eventually become the dominant health insurance provider are certainly understandable if the history of higher education serves as a comparison.

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About the Author

Perry L. Glanzer teaches in the School of Education and the Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University.