What your education dollar isn't buying

By Krista Kafer Ever wonder what you’re paying for with your federal tax dollars? Look at just one department (the one Republicans once promised to eliminate). This year, Colorado received $406 million in federal funds for k-12 education programs. The state received another $199 million for higher education, while students received $1.2 billion in new taxpayer subsidized loans. That’s a lot of money.

Ever wonder if the programs work? Anecdotal evidence will tell you that there are students who benefit from federal programs. Aggregate achievement statistics, however, may make you wonder. It’s pretty obvious that a lot of money doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of progress.

A recent Rocky Mountain News article reported that Colorado’s 4th and 8th grade scores on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading and math tests have stagnated. With the exception of the average 4th grade reading score, the state’s average scores declined or remained the same from last year.

The NAEP has provided national and more recently state level data in a variety of subjects since 1969. The federal Department of Education manages the NAEP project under the guidance of the bipartisan National Assessment Governing Board. The tests provide a statistically representative score for the state student population and various student subgroups.

Since all states have different academic tests, it is not easy to compare state academic achievement. This is where NAEP is useful. All states participate. Compared to the national average, Colorado students score higher on the math, reading, science, and writing tests.

While this is good news, the lack of improvement over the past year is not. Progress on the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP), Colorado’s state testing system, over the past year was equally mediocre. With the exception of math scores, which rose in each grade, CSAP scores across grades in other subjects flatlined between 2004 and 2005.

The lack of progress is disconcerting given the increased effort and funding (both federal and state) over the past year. As I said before, that’s a lot of money.

And it gets worse

Have I got you wondering what you’re paying for with your federal tax dollars? In some cases you’re subsidizing bad behavior.

Another recent article in the Rocky reported high student loan default rates for attendees of some of Colorado’s higher education institutions.

Taxpayers subsidize billions of dollars worth of college loans. While the majority of students repay loans, a percentage does not.

Although Colorado’s average default rate (4.4%) is slightly lower than the national rate, the rate at some of its private for-profit schools and public schools is higher.

A Sample of Default Rates:

• College America 18.3 • IntelliTec College, Colorado Springs 15.8 • San Juan Basin Technical College 14.2 • Westwood College of Aviation Technology 13.4 • Community College of Denver 11.0 • Metropolitan State College 4.7 Colorado Average 4.4 • University of Northern Colorado 2.1 • University of Colorado at Boulder 2.0 • Colorado State University, Fort Collins 1.9 • University of Denver 1.0 • Colorado School of Mines 0.7

The national default rate for taxpayer guaranteed college loans is 4.5 percent. Students from private non-profit schools have the lowest rates (2.8%), while students from private for-profit schools have the highest rate (7.3%). The default rate for public school students falls in between (4.3%).

The Department of Education can expel schools from the loan program for exceptionally high rates (more than 40% or more than 25% in three consecutive years). Given the price taxpayers are paying, this standard is far too low. Taxpayers are on the hook for ineffective college programs or poor personal decisions by students. Defaults cost taxpayers $2.7 billion a year. That’s a lot money for nothing.