Thursday, January 04, 2007
I've read this six times, and I still can't be sure I'm getting it right. According to the Chronicle,
A state commission in Wisconsin is considering whether to recommend a plan that would provide free tuition to state residents who graduate from any campus of the University of Wisconsin and then agree to work in the state for at least 10 years, or who graduate from a community college in the state and make a similar commitment for at least five years.
To which I say, WOW, that's a terrible idea. It would take serious, focused effort to come up with an idea as bad as that. I shouldn't be surprised that it came from a committee.
Like many awful ideas, it has a patina of plausibility to it at first blush. Yes, it's good to have an educated workforce. (Would you expect a cc dean to take issue with that?) Yes, educated workforces draw employers – if tax burdens were the only issue, the Northeast would have self-destructed years ago. Yes, achieving a critical mass of educated young people in a given area makes it much likelier that innovative startups will develop there, as anybody who has read Richard Florida knows. And yes, it can be hard, at first, to explain why a state should subsidize the education of someone who will march out the door with the freshly-minted credential the day after graduation. All of that, granted.
But flip it around.
Assume we're talking about traditional-aged students. A four-year college grad will enter college around 18, and graduate somewhere around 22. This grad has to commit to staying in Wisconsin until at least 32?
Quick quiz for the comments section: how many of my over-32 readers still live in the same state they did at 19? I don't.
What happens between, say, 18 and 32?
For most people, those years involve finding multiple jobs, figuring out what you want to be when you grow up, seeking (and hopefully finding) a long-term mate or two, sometimes having children, enduring both an economic boom and an economic slump or two, maybe heading off to graduate school, maybe starting a business. The list goes on.
Suppose I'm some enterprising 27 year old who signed up for this plan at 18, went to UW-Madison, graduated, and duly found work in, say, Sheboygan. Now suppose I meet my sweetie. Suppose my sweetie gets a job offer she can't refuse in, say, Durham, NC. Now I have a lovely choice: ruefully tell my sweetie that peasants are tied to the land, or go with her and suddenly assume the burden of four years of tuition (plus interest? Tuition at current levels?) without eligibility for financial aid, thereby making it that much harder to, say, buy a house and get on with life.
The folks most likely to have get-up-and-go, the ones you most want to keep, will be the ones who won't do this. The ones who might do it, by and large, will be the ones who would have stayed anyway.
If I'm wrong, it's even worse. What if a starry-eyed 18 year old signs up for this, then decides to go to med school or law school? It's UW or nothing, pretty much. If the kid could have gone to Yale, he'd better be prepared to pony up four years' worth of tuition posthaste, without financial aid. The tax implications alone are staggering.
Large companies might not want to bother recruiting in Wisconsin, if they know that the sharp young grads they hire won't be eligible for out-of-state transfer for ten years. As economic development plans go, this isn't good. (Besides, isn't that a kind of barrier to interstate commerce? Doesn't the Constitution have something to say about that? Wisconsin can't put a tariff on goods from Pennsylvania. How is this different?)
Besides, the economy is far more volatile than a plan like this assumes. A kid from Michigan who decided in the mid-1990's to go work for Ford, when it was rolling in money from all those SUV's, is probably unemployed right now. A kid who went to grad school in the early 1990's to catch that “great wave of retirements” is, well, you know. And who foresaw VOIP fourteen years ago? You just can't be that sure.
(That's why a plan like this bothers me in a way that ROTC doesn't. At least with ROTC, if you complete the program successfully you're guaranteed a job. In the Wisconsin case, if there's a regional recession during your period of indentured servitude, well, sorry.)
What the Wisconsin plan utterly fails to grasp is the nature of the educated worker. If you want to attain a critical mass of young creative-class types, you won't do it by trapping them. You'll do it by attracting them, until they start attracting each other. Pour the money that would have gone into tracking down those miscreants who moved at age 28 for a spouse or a job into something actually useful, like maybe upgrading a second campus to Madison level or upgrading some Madison programs to the next level, or even strengthening the academic transfer core programs at Wisconsin cc's. Maybe refurbish some downtowns or improve some light-rail systems or slow the rate of tuition increases generally or cut somebody's taxes. But don't try to clip the wings of ambitious young people whose idea of the world stretches beyond the state line.
Then we have Florida, where a high gpa in high school translates into a free university education, no matter where they go afterwards.
While there's never been a time when I didn't officially live in Michigan, between school and the army I spent most of my 20s (and my 32nd year) elsewhere. Which is consistent with your point, I think.
On the radio I heard that something like 80% of WI college grads stay in state *anyway*. The state has been cutting the university system budgets for years. This plan would be one way to go about having the state fund public education but I don't think something that smacks of indentured servitude is good policy.
This porposal is a spectacularly bad idea. Suppose every state did something similar. Then the mobility of labor within the US would be dramatically reduced, and the ability of firms to recruit the best & the brightest would be reduced. So productivity growth and output growth would fall. The worst of all possible worlds, says the economist in me...
perhaps a better way of looking at it is this. let's say a student takes out a loan to cover their higher education as is typical. then for every year spent working in wisconsin, the state pays off a percentage of your loan. is that really that outrageous?
Student finances educaiton by normal means, when they complete 10 years of continuous residency, the state refunds tuition. So, moving would have long-term impacts and thus would have to be worth leaving the state.
The problem you don't seem to see is what happens once the 10 years are up? I know I'd probably stay until I got my reverse tuition check and then use that money to leave... talk about creating a donut in the population...
True, it seems to be phrased as an opt-in program (which I didn't catch on first reading; I thought it would be automatic, which would have been just awful), but it also seems very carrot-and-stick to me. There's the carrot of a free education now (which is great, and which would undoubtedly appeal to many who wouldn't ordinarily be able to afford college), but that's a whopping big stick to hold over someone's head for ten years.
I haven't yet reached my 32nd year, but if I were held to that same standard (ten years in the state I went to college), I'd've already broken it, and I just graduated in May. Granted, I also went to school out-of-state, and just moved home.
It is nice to see people thinking about these sort of things, though, even if they come up with spectacularly bad ideas occasionally. I know a number of people for whom this would be a great idea (mostly people in tightly-knit families from lower-income areas, who don't expect to ever leave the state or move far from their families, and would/will/are hav(e/ing) difficulty paying for college), but I know even more for whom this would be an enticing but awful trap (highly motivated people who have big plans, but who have fallen on unforseeably hard times paying for their college education, yet who are still seen as ineligible for financial aid to the degree that they actually need. This is unfortunately far more common than, well, common sense would dictate it should be).
And whatever the decision is, something ought be done about the structural barriers we have in place to educational attainment. I just wish there were more... mm, considered, proposals floating around.
I think it is, unless person is providing services to the state of Wisconsin in exchange for the loan forgiveness.
Let's say that, thanks to the wonderful college education, the UofW grad is making 2x the average wage of other Wisconsin taxpayers. Why should those others chip in to help pay down his education debt, while he keeps all the benefits?
If the goal is to have an educated workforce in the state, why not allow a state income tax deduction--beter yet, a credit-- for all college tuition loan repayments, regardless of what school was attended (in-state or or out-of-state, public or private)?
I think DD's analysis of the impractical impact of the plan is spot on.
yes, 10 years does sound like a lot, but it seems consistent with other reward-now-pay-later educational programs, e.g., rotc. in fact, the chance of buyers remorse is much greater with rotc, where one stands a significant chance of dying, than with the wisconsin plan. and yet we've collectively decided that's acceptable. in wi, they just want the student to contribute something to the place that made him.
in addition, if the tuition burden is progressively lightened over the course of those years, it becomes less restrictive. by that time, the person is more likely to just stay where he is (presumably to wi's benefit).
"Let's say that, thanks to the wonderful college education, the UofW grad is making 2x the average wage of other Wisconsin taxpayers. Why should those others chip in to help pay down his education debt, while he keeps all the benefits?"
i think you partially answered your own question. college educated folks tend to make more money --> more tax revenue. also, they're more likely to generate business and jobs for other people --> more tax revenue.
and in any event, paying the tuition of promising students is something every state already does to more or less extent (see ccphysicist's comment above).
disclaimer: i'm from wisconsin and unduly proud. ;)
I would like to explore a bit further the question posed by "doc" asking what if every state did this?
We would certainly see a shift of the burden of paying for a college education off the student, and onto the taxpayers of those states that have adopted such an approach. (Socialist, and hence not a surprise for WI). Why should a family seek to help their child pay for a college education if a) they are already paying for everyone else's child through taxes, and b) they could have the "state" pay for it. Ignoring of course that fact that the majority will see it simply as "free" education.
The other shift of funding is perhaps more interesting. If every state did this, then those it might limit mobility for are those who could not afford the education on their own. But another possible outcome could be that it shifts the burden of college reimbursement for those leaving the state (those most desired by corporations) to the corporations themselves who would build into any contract offer a "buy out" of the tuition bill.
Would that be a bad thing?
DD, you need to be careful, you are starting to sound like those old guys you so often criticize who complain "but we've always done it this way." :-)
PS - I had to laugh at the one comment that would generalize to an argument claiming Jeb Bush is a socialist for supporting various tuition waiver plans. Someone needs to study a bit of history regarding the difference between the Progressive Movement (still strong in the midwest, even among Republicans) and Socialism.
He finished his BA -- before I knew him -- went off to Korea to teach for a year, then came back to start on his MA. Only he discovered that he really didn't want to teach.
So they converted his scholarship into a loan. The part I really don't remember was how they calculated interest. What I do remember was that it was a ginormous hunk of money.
He worked for a community theater for a while, then went to SF and got into tech, and now is quite well off. But he only managed to pay off the loan because of some random coincidence...an inheritance from an aunt? Something like that.
The whole thing struck me at the time as exceptionally weird, and so does this.