Thursday, November 01, 2012

Whiskey, Cigarettes, and Jane Austen

According to a task force convened by Governor Scott of Florida, Jane Austen falls into the same category as whiskey and cigarettes.  

I’ll admit, I hadn’t thought of that.

I’ve heard proposals about charging different tuition for different majors before.  The usual argument is that certain courses of study are much more expensive for colleges to offer, so the students who reap the benefit of the more expensive courses should be asked to pay at least some of the extra cost.  Lab fees are the classic example: it’s standard procedure at many colleges to tack on a surcharge for lab science or studio art classes to help cover the cost of the consumables the students use.  Differential tuition is usually presented as lab fees applied to an entire course of study.  

But this is new.

Apparently, Florida is considering tying tuition levels to how badly the state wants people to major in something.  So instead of tacking a lab fee onto a biology class, a college would run biology at a relative discount, and charge more for, say, upper-level English or philosophy.  The idea is to treat colleges as the personnel offices of the new economy, and to use tuition pricing as a not-very-subtle signal to students as to what they should study.  If you want to do something “useful,” the state will help you; if you want to be a starving artist, do it on your own dime and at your own risk.

Predictably enough, English professors across the internet are aghast, but that’s easy to write off as self-interest.  I’m more intrigued at what a move like that would actually entail.

First, and most basically, it decouples cost from revenue.  For a college, it’s cheaper to run a simple classroom course than it is to run something with a lab.  A history class, say, only requires one instructor and one classroom.  A bio class requires an instructor and a lab technician, and it requires a room with specialized equipment and far more square footage per student.  That’s why we charge lab fees.

But if you reverse the lab fee model and treat colleges as personnel offices, then the entire economic underpinning of the college has to change.

For the last forty years or so, the uninterrupted trend in public higher education financing has been a cost shift from the state to the student.  (If so inclined, you can partially substitute “federal government” for “student,” to the extent that Pell grants come into play.)  In theory, it’s possible for that to be neutral in its impact, if you assume a constant total.  But enrollments fluctuate, even as state support flatlines or drops.  Colleges have adapted by increasing tuition and fees far more quickly than overall costs.  Even at many community colleges, direct student payments are a larger share of the budget at this point than state subsidies are.  Getting prices closer to costs has been the only way to continue to function as subsidies have declined.

The proposal to levy a sort of sin tax on the liberal arts, like on whiskey and cigarettes, would upend this model.  If the sin tax “worked,” and steered more students away from English and into STEM, then a college would quickly fall behind in meeting its budget as students shifted from the profit centers to the loss centers.  (That’s part of the argument for sin taxes; if they’re high enough, they deter sin.  When cigarettes get expensive enough, fewer teenagers start smoking.) There are only two ways to make this work:

1. Raise the cost of the “undesired” programs, but don’t cut the cost of the “desired” ones.  


2. Radically increase operating subsidies, and commit to the new, higher levels and a realistic rate of increase for the foreseeable future.

The former strikes me as self-defeating, and the latter as implausible (though desirable).  

Leaving aside the academic merits of the proposal -- the interwebs have eviscerated those with predictable vigor -- it’s a complete non-starter economically unless the state is willing to kick in far more money, basically until the end of time.  When you decouple costs from revenues, you’d better make up those costs someplace else.  If you don’t, like California doesn’t, then you wind up cutting services to the point of turning away hundreds of thousands of students, many of whom will wind up going instead to more expensive for-profits.

Governor Scott, personnel offices are not self-supporting.  They’re overhead.  If you remake colleges into personnel offices, you have to redo the funding accordingly.  Unless you’re willing to accept the increased costs that colleges would face as new overhead for the state, kill this proposal dead.  And leave Jane Austen alone.