Thursday, January 04, 2007

On Wisconsin

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.