Harvard economist Edward Glaeser has an op-ed piece in the Boston Globe suggesting a change to the $40 billion-a-year Pell Grant program, which awards grants that max out at $5,550 a year:
Pell payments to schools should be increased, and split between an up-front payment and a later conditional payment based upon a student's college completion and employment success. If the maximum annual Pell grant is increased to, say, $7,000, the University of Phoenix could get $3,500 now, and $3,500 later, when the student has a degree and when Social Security records confirm that she has held a decent job for three months. After four years, the school will have $14,000 riding on the student's employment.
This strikes me as misguided on at least three fronts.
First, given the budget constraints in Washington, a $10 billion a year increase in the Pell Grant program — which universities would probably react to by raising tuition by the amount of the increased Pell Grant, with the money going to fancy residences for highly compensated college presidents, along with added non-academic personnel and fancy buildings — seems unlikely and inadvisable.
Second, near-immediate "employment success" seems a highly constrained view of what constitutes success for a college. What if a person is not holding what Professor Glaeser describes as a "decent job," but is a full-time mom who brings her college education to bear on her volunteer work and her helping her children with their homework? What if someone decides to go to graduate school for a long time, or take a traveling fellowship abroad? What if someone is gainfully employed, but failed to learn in college anything about appreciating fine art or music or literature, or about being a citizen in a democracy, or about being a moral person?
Finally, whether students are employed may have a lot to do with things — the business cycle, the policies of the Federal Reserve, the government in Washington — that colleges and universities have little power to affect. College and university budgets are already cyclical because alumni donations and endowment values (and payouts) go down in a bad economy, while financial aid need rises. Adding a reduction in Pell Grant payouts because students can't find jobs — when the problem isn't with the education, it's with the economy — wouldn't much help the colleges or the students.