Monday, August 11, 2014



What if every sector of higher education received the same per-student funding?

Right now, the more affluent the student body, the more public aid money the sector receives.   Flagship universities receive more per-student funding than do regional campuses, which, in turn, receive more than community colleges.  And if you look at financial aid to students as a form of public funding -- which, in effect, it is, unless it’s a loan -- then private colleges receive more than anybody.  

From a social-justice perspective, that’s counterintuitive.  The tightest cost controls hit the people with the smallest cushion, while those who have the most, get the most. Giving the least help to those who need it the most seems to serve another agenda.

Worse, to the extent that the public/political discourse is dominated by people whose frame of reference is the elite institutions, we get persistent, catastrophic misconceptions driving policy.  

I’m not going as far here as, say, Sara Goldrick-Rab with her suggestion of defunding the private institutions altogether.  I’m just suggesting a level playing field.  If someone is able to do a better job with the same amount of money, let them; the innovation may eventually help us all.  But proving again and again that you can do wonders if your budget were tripled isn’t impressive.

In fact, if we wanted per-student institutional spending to match, then logically, we’d need to have the highest per-student subsidies at the lowest-cost places.  Subsidies would be inversely proportional to tuition.  The lower the tuition, the higher the per-student subsidy. That way, we’d have actual parity of resources on the ground.  But I know that’s unthinkable in our current politics, so I’ll propose subsidy or aid parity as a more modest compromise.  

It may seem farfetched, but really, what is the argument for spending the most on those who have the most?  If we’re serious about educating the citizenry and workforce, why shower money on the Ivies while community colleges are forced to use a majority-adjunct faculty?  If we were starting from scratch, would we design the system this way?

I propose a “laboratories of education” approach.  Give equal funding across all sectors of higher education, and see which ideas are actually the best.  In social science terms, control for a variable.  (I can envision the Buzzfeed piece: “We gave these community college students the same funding as their counterparts at Dartmouth.  You won’t believe what happened next!”)  If nothing else, we’d stand to learn something, and the people who need the most help would benefit the most.

I can certainly imagine worse ideas...  

Amen. I've been saying that for some time because I know what would happen. Among other things, either our tuition would get a LOT lower or we would have a nearly full-time faculty.
The way things look to me up the road in Amherst (well, Hadley), one factor that your proposal doesn't address is institutional mission, especially in fields that don't attract much external funding. Here at UMass Amherst's history department, one aspect of our mission is to train graduate students in history (including several recent Ph.D.s who have chosen to teach at CC's, by the way, not because they didn't find jobs at 4-year institutions). Graduate education is, by its nature, significantly more expensive than undergraduate education. If we received equal public funding per student, we'd need to either rob the undergrads to teach the grads, or give our grad students a subpar education.

And yes, grad students do work as TAs, extending our instructional workforce for a fairly low price, but based on my experience as graduate program director, trying to balance the TA budget, it doesn't make up for the high cost of running small graduate seminars and advising grad student research, especially since we don't have our grad students teach independent courses to the resident undergrads except in extraordinary circumstances.

Of course, raising this issue opens many cans of worms, from basic equity and social justice, to differential tuition based on the cost of education, to differential tuition based on the marketability of a degree. I'd be interested in trying your experiment as long as apples are compared with apples, e.g. a different subsidy for M.A. and Ph.D. students, and perhaps even for B.A. and B.S. students depending on the field.
what is the argument for spending the most on those who have the most?

I can't guarantee this is the argument—and indeed it may not be, since I think the system evolved by accident rather than being planned by design—but one possible answer is that the current system evolved primarily to subsidize conduct research. If the attempt to maximize research rather than social justice, then it may make sense to spend the most money on universities and programs that produce a lot of it.

The idea that universities are primarily about social justice seems to have come along later; your third paragraph starts with "From a social-justice perspective," and that may not be the dominant perspective among legislators. Certainly during much of the Cold War period from 1945 – 1975, when money poured into universities per Louis Menand's The Marketplace of Ideas it wasn't.

My dissertation is on academic novels and I've now read a huge amount of material related to the conception of universities from 1945 – the present. One persistent theme is that intelligent people in every era disagree both what universities as a whole are for and quite often on the discipline or department level what each discipline or department is for. In this respect your post is a continuation of this discussion.

But there was a social justice perspective during at least half of the time period you singled out, because many of those students were there on the GI Bill and most were first-in-family at college. After universal K-12, that might have been the most radical thing ever tried. The CC movement during the latter part of that period was also a push for social justice and a bigger middle class.

And I think it is an open question as to what legislators think they are funding with the general budget for a large state R1. For many, it is probably whatever the leadership of the home of their favorite football team and alma mater wants, up to some budget constraint due to political priorities. I don't think they know how little actually goes to teach their kids.

Those novels are unlikely to be written by those paying the bills. A comparison of budgets over the past 70 years, broadened to include CCs in the past 50 years, is where the secrets are buried.
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