The government doesn’t rank the private companies that receive federal funds. Why should higher education be any different?

Julio M. Ottino and Mark P. Mills report at Real Clear Politics.

“Cost-Effective” College Plan Could Chill Innovation

Rising prosperity and all associated social benefits flow from innovation — none of which is found in the halls of Congress. It is in the halls of colleges and universities where we find and foster innovators — and were America’s unique advantage resides.

More innovation yields more growth, and consequently more taxes and perhaps fewer political battles in a world where the economic “pie” expands.

With the latest political budget fracas behind us (for now), attention will return to the affordability of higher education precisely because of the pivotal role universities play in our future. But affordability and effectiveness are entirely different things.

The White House has proposed a federal system to rank the cost-effectiveness of universities. The logic? Education is expensive and cash is precious in these tough economic times. The government could use ratings to allocate federal funds based on cost-effectiveness.

But imagine for a minute proposing a similar government ranking system for, say, Silicon Valley. After all, technology start-ups are also essential to America’s future. It’s costly to create new businesses. And, as with universities, Washington “spends” billons of dollars on start-ups in the form of tax treatments, grants and subsidies. The government, using the same logic, could use rankings to ensure the most bang for the federal buck.

A cost-based federal ranking system would be as much a disaster for the uncontrolled fecundity of Silicon Valley as it would be for our universities.

The best thing about America’s educational system — where we find half of the entire world’s top 100 universities — is that, just like Silicon Valley, there is no system. It is Darwinian and ideally suited to the chaos created by technology and social change, and by the reality that the future is unpredictable.