Monday, May 14, 2012


Thoughts on Vouchers

Apparently, Pennsylvania is considering moving to a voucher system for public higher education.  The idea is to zero out the direct funding for colleges and universities, and to replace it with money to students.  Colleges’ funding will become a direct function of enrollment.

There’s a superficial appeal to the idea.  Colleges would have to direct funding more intensively towards the kinds of things that result in higher enrollments or they would suffer cuts.  At some level, the locus of power would shift to students, since he who pays the piper calls the tune.

A few thoughts:

-- Under this system, it would no longer be clear what separates a public college from a private one.  If they’re both enrollment-driven, and neither gets money from the state, then the difference would be in name only.  (The key difference from the for-profits, other than private investment capital, would be the property tax exemption.)  Public colleges would have to increase their tuition drastically to avoid terrible cuts, which would probably more than engulf the value of any vouchers.

-- Given the lack of distinction between publics and privates, I’d expect to see the privates start angling for access to the voucher money.  To the extent that they succeed, the erstwhile publics will suffer that much more.  

-- The value of the vouchers will not come close to keeping up with the cost of providing education.

-- The publics will bifurcate.  Those with prestige will survive, as will those with the simplest missions.  The nothing-special-comprehensives in the middle will struggle mightily.

-- Any sort of meaningful inter-institutional collaboration will go by the boards, since funding will quickly become a zero-sum game.

-- The adjunct trend will accelerate, and alternatives to tenure will abound.  (Once the first financial exigency gets declared, even incumbent holders of tenure won’t be safe.)  The tenure system is not sustainable when funding is entirely enrollment-driven and enrollment fluctuates.  The combination of high fixed costs and variable revenues is a killer.  The only way to survive in that setting is to be able to adjust your labor costs in real time.  That’s why for-profits don’t have tenure systems.  Some will present that as centralizing power in the administration, but that’s not quite right; it’s centralizing power in the students.  The administration will have no more autonomy to buck the market than the faculty will.

-- Admissions offices will grow larger and more powerful on campus.  This will come at the expense of other constituencies.

-- As the first round of colleges start to face extinction, I’d expect to see the usual ethical compromises: pressure to pass students at all costs, a collapse of admissions standards, whatever it takes.  Desperate people do desperate things.

-- Long-term planning on campuses will become impossible, as decisions come to be made based on the most recent numbers.  Over time, this will lead to declines in quality.

The ability to say ‘no’ to short-term market pressures is predicated on a revenue source independent of the market.  Lose that revenue, and you lose that autonomy.  

I have little faith in Pennsylvania’s political class, but I hope they don’t go down this road.  The damage would be done quickly, and would take decades to undo.  The superficial appeal just isn’t worth it.

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Amazing post. Your insights never cease to impress me. Why are the politicians in PA unable to see as clearly as you do?
Interesting. My brother (another Dean--at a Pennsylvania university) and I have been going a few rounds on this one as well. Perhaps he and I should record one of our podcasts.

Anyway, a couple things need to be made clear. For instance, the most recognized PA "State School" (Penn State) is actually not a State School, receiving less than 4% of their funding from the state. Most other private schools are the same. In fact, the article points out that the schools Gov Corbett is considering funding through vouchers are the schools that are specifically NOT the state schools. He believes that the state schools should have institutional support.

Now, for the real "State schools" (those that are part of the Pennsylvania university system, such as Indiana U of P, Mansfield, Bloomsburg, Shippensburg, etc...) Their funding is about 30% from the state. There is already a significant distinction between these schools. That is why the governor is not willing to cut those loose.

Let's think about how these things could break down if the vouchers were to be across all schools (DD's assumption but as noted, not the one contained in the article).

As it stands now, the money that PSU, Pitt, Temple, etc receive is a small percentage not only of the budget, but of the costs of having the students. Their tuition is significantly higher than those of the real state schools. So if you are a student that is paying attention to your tuition costs, you are currently choosing between a higher cost "state affiliated" school or a lower costs "state" school. There need not be a reason for a distinction.

So that addresses the first point: There remains a distinction because they have priced themselves with a distinction. (and I will skip the second point--it's included in the first).

For your third point, at no point was there ever any consideration that the state funding would pay the costs of providing education? The funding levels don't now (as mentioned above).

Point four: There is no real distinction between the Publics. The publics are part of the Pennsylvania State University System, which does NOT include PSU, or Pitt, or Temple, or any of the schools often seen as 'prestigious state schools."

Point five: actually collaboration will continue at the R1s, since the reward structure there is based on research and not on teaching/education. Expect this: if anything the R1s will provide less "higher education" and will tout more and more "collaboration" with other schools to bring in even more research grant money.

Point six: The adjunct trend really isn't an issue at the "state" schools. Why? They are unionized. Among other things. And at the R1s (I refuse to say ("prestigious") why use adjuncts when you have TAs?

Point seven: The only way admissions offices would grow is if a) anyone really understood how businesses and markets work and b) they actually found themselves facing declining enrollment. That certainly isn't happening at the R1s, and as the economy tightened, the state schools became the more affordable choice.

That's enough... for now...
The Professor's basically covered it. PA is weird. PSU would not suffer from this, but the state might loose it's agricultural outreach for 4-H and gardening. But then, it's not like we're a *real* land-grant in philosophy anyway.
What they said about PA, but in our state (and perhaps yours) it might play out very differently.

If they took all of the state appropriations per undergrad and split them equally, CC students would get a LOT more than they do today and the top universities would get less if the process was done honestly.

The legislative challenge would be to figure out what part of the R1 budget goes to grad programs and research support and what goes to teaching undergrads. Exposing the amount taxpayers kick in for medical school would be a real shocker! Right now it is buried under everything else.
It is not a bug it is a feature. Corbett and his ilk seek to destroy public education
Yay, more ideologically driven destruction of the American middle class.
Now see, that's just funny. The dean and I had arguments, based on our assessments of how things behave. Logical, and fact based, yet disagreeing in conclusions.

Punditus, it is you and and EliRab that are speaking (well, writing) from positions of ideological posturing.

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