Opinion: Carolina Beat

No. 760: Kerry Panders for College Students’ Votes

It’s a presidential election year, therefore we have to endure the almost incessant pandering to special-interest groups that so dominates our politics. Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, got out of the starting gate early, with a ploy to win the votes of college students.

Speaking at the University of New Hampshire, Kerry tried his best to inject a bit of humor — “I actually had a big fight with my staff over what time to have this rally They wanted noon. I said 3:30 — that way most of you would actually be awake” — before getting down to the serious business of pandering. “It’s your tuition and your loans that keep rising and rising every day while this president spends all our money on tax cuts for the wealthy.”

Kerry followed up by promising the students a “compact with the next generation” that would give $4,000 in federal funds to every college student who signs up for a period of “national service.” That’s a lot of free money in exchange for some service. It sounds like a good deal. Kerry then treated his student audience to some of the most bloviated rhetoric since Hubert Humphrey: “Together, we’ll make 2004 the last year that debt and dollar signs come before degrees and dreams for the future.”

First of all, do we need more federal subsidies for college? Would an additional $4,000 per student make college “affordable” again? Expensive as college is, there are hardly any qualified students who don’t attend because their families can’t come up with enough money. A recent report by the Congressional Budget Office said, “The majority of students from low-income families are able to finance their college costs without exhausting the government-subsidized loans for which they are eligible.” More generally, the CBO concluded that financing college education is “not a major obstacle to college attendance.”

Another recent study, done by the Manhattan Institute, found that there were about 1.2 million high school seniors who had the academic qualifications necessary to enter college in 2000, and that the number of students who actually enrolled in college that fall was 1.3 million. That is to say, colleges took all of the qualified students and then some. The notion that a lot of bright kids who ought to be in college are kept out for financial or any other reason just isn’t true.

Now what if Kerry’s “compact” were enacted — what would keep schools from raising their tuition even further? Nothing. Professor Peter Wood, who has served in the administration at Boston University, recently wrote that federal student aid money is “seen by colleges and universities as money that is there for the taking. Tuition is set high enough to capture those funds and whatever else we think can be extracted from parents.”

More government money for students actually means more revenue for colleges.

Maybe the subsidy side of this idea isn’t so good after all.

But what about all the debt that many students have to pay off after graduation? Don’t we need to do something about that? Kerry makes it sound like a horrible, unfair burden — which is pretty rich coming from a politician who regularly votes for spending that increases the national debt. But college loans are not unmanageable or unfair. Millions of students have borrowed and paid back their loans, just as people gradually pay off their mortgages. If politicians like Kerry don’t think students should have debts after graduation, do they also think that people are entitled to houses for free?

Let’s next look at the “national service” part of Kerry’s compact. It sounds so wonderfully idealistic. “Are you ready to go out into your communities and serve the country you love?” Kerry asked.

There are two kinds of volunteers — those who really desire to help, and those who “volunteer” because they have to. The former kind often accomplish a lot of good, but the latter rarely do. We have enough experience with the latter kind that we shouldn’t be so naïve as to expect much.

In 1993, the Clinton administration created “AmeriCorps,” which is supposed to, in Bill Clinton’s words, to help America “move forward together.” But the truth is that AmeriCorps is a scam. As author James Bovard writes in his book “feeling your pain,”AmeriCorps members routinely do little more than beat the bushes to boost the number of Americans on the dole.”

The man who held Kerry’s Senate seat before he did, Paul Tsongas, ran for president in 1992 and famously referred to his rivals as “pander bears.” With Kerry in the race, guard your bamboo.