Washington Monthly - September/October 2015 - 51

en GOP resistance and the general gridlock in Congress, it's probably not the most promising one. Instead, this is an issue that's likely to play out in the presidential race. Democratic presidential candidates have already started to appeal to their progressive base by talking about "debt-free college," and the emerging details of these plans all revolve around the federal government forcing states to fund public higher education. To make their case, the candidates need allies knowledgeable enough about the complicated policy architecture of federal-state higher education funding to advise them, and credible enough to be spokespeople for the needed changes. More than anyone else, that person is F. King Alexander. T he Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College is the flagship campus of the LSU system and is located in Baton Rouge, an hour's drive north of New Orleans. The campus, which has multiple exits off of the I-10 freeway, is a large presence in the city, both in terms of land and the number of people it employs. Baton Rouge in early June is similar to Washington, D.C., in August-after about thirty minutes outside you resent that society requires you to wear clothes, now that they are drenched with sweat and stuck to your skin. LSU battles the heat with giant southern live oak trees (Quercus virginiana), which seem to cool the entire campus and offer a muchneeded refuge from the sun. The oaks are sacred-people who park their cars near the exposed roots are heavily fined. Strolling through the quad, you encounter one of the limbs of a giant tree growing downward, sprawled on the ground like a student lying out in the sun. You might recognize LSU's trees, grass, and understated buildings from the Pitch Perfect movies, in which LSU stars as Barden University. LSU looks different from northeastern liberal arts campuses, where tight arrays of neo-Gothic buildings evoke a connection to European learning from before we knew the earth revolved around the sun. Since the nineteenth century, LSU's mission has included training farmers and engineers, and that practicality is still present today. The campus has a simulated oil-drilling station to train petroleum engineers on how to prevent blowouts, such as the one that occurred on BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. During my tour the engineers were excited to "blow the stack"-pent-up gas was released from a 100-foot-high derrick in the form of a blazing fireball, and as we drove back toward the center of campus a cloud of black smoke crawled across the sky. I've come two days after Lamar Alexander's hearing to get a better sense of King's thinking and worldview. We meet at "The Club," a fine-dining facility with high ceilings and chandeliers in the center of campus. As a rule, it is impossible to sit down with any university president in America and not get an earful of boosterism about the unparalleled greatness of their institution. King is no slacker in this regard. He talks about LSU's collection of marine life, an alumnus who was flight director for a Mars rover mission, LSU's sold-out baseball game the next day, and their live tiger, Mike, whom they bring out to football games to intimidate the opposing team. Soon enough, however, the discussion turns to federal policy. King is most proud of how little debt LSU students graduate with and how high their mid-career earnings are- LSU has the largest number of undergraduates studying petroleum engineering, a highly paid profession, of any college in the country. He's quite sure that the return on investment of an LSU degree beats that of the majority of private schools. But he can't prove it definitively, because Congress, at the behest of lobbyists for the private colleges, has specifically barred the Department of Education from extracting the necessary data. King does not hide his distaste for private colleges or the professional associations that represent them, and reserves a special hatred for for-profits, which he refers to as "industrial park" universities. He can't understand why the federal government gives out money to private institutions, no questions asked. Public colleges, he notes, are held accountable at least by their state legislatures for how much they spend and charge in tuition and fees. Private colleges can charge more in King was heavily influenced by the crusading spirit and gritty determination of his mother, a college professor. After she became pregnant with her fourth son, it was made clear to her that the head of her academic department might ask her to resign. She said she would not, gave birth during spring break, and was back in the classroom the following week when classes resumed. tuition and force their graduates to take out loans to pay for it with no repercussions from the federal government-even if their students do poorly. That's why King wants the federal government to hold all institutions that take federal dollars, public and private alike, more accountable. In his mind, the privates thrive on misinformation, "smoke screens" like U.S. News & World Report, which rewards schools for spending excessive amounts of money per student-King calls it an "inefficiency ranking." He thinks that if parents could see that Washington Monthly 51

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