Friday, May 22, 2009

Fun with Cognitive Dissonance

Both of these stories make sense on their own terms. But taken together, they neatly capture the basic dilemma in my world.

I've mentioned before that I don't live or work in California, and right now, I'm feeling pretty good about that. The state budget there has tipped from 'tragedy' to 'farce,' with devastating consequences for public higher ed. From what I can tell as a non-native, it looks like a pair of structural flaws in state government -- two-thirds majorities needed for budgets, and a non-system of government-by-referendum -- have collided with the Great Recession to force a crisis. Since cc funding there doesn't apparently include local tax support, and the colleges themselves can't raise tuition individually, the only path left open to them is to reduce capacity to what the voters are apparently willing to pay for.

Yet at the exact same time, there's a crying need -- and a political push -- for an educated workforce, and cc's are often the lowest-cost and most accessible avenues to create that.

I see this in my own state. We don't export oil, and the old manufacturing base isn't coming back. If there's going to be a sustainable middle class in the future, it will have to have skills. But the very places adults can go to get those skills are taking nasty cuts.

The disjuncture between national policy and state control leads to some very weird outcomes on the ground. In many states, 'stimulus' funding is being consumed almost entirely by existing deficits, since states aren't allowed to run deficits. (Some do, but they aren't supposed to.) When the Feds are pushing the accelerator while the states are slamming on the brakes, it shouldn't be surprising that we're experiencing some jarring fits and starts. There's a really basic structural flaw here, and California just happens to be highlighting it.

Why don't we have a national system for higher ed?

In a way, local or state reluctance to invest in higher ed makes a certain degree of sense. Young, newly-educated people have a way of leaving. At the national level, that's a good thing; we want the talent to go where the opportunities are. But locally, explaining to the folks who aren't going anywhere why they should subsidize other people getting the hell out of Dodge can be a tough sell. ("Let's face it -- this place is a real shithole!" You don't hear too many campaign speeches saying that.) Why, say, Buffalo should prepare its best and brightest to get out of Buffalo is a real question.

But the "we don't capture the gains" objection largely fades away at the Federal level. Most of the new grads who leave the state of their alma mater -- itself a minority -- don't leave the country. On a national level, we do capture the gains.

In a way, we're backing into a Federal system. As the percentage of public higher ed budgets covered by state support has decreased, most of the costs have shifted to students. Since so much of student financial aid is Federal, we're effectively replacing state money with Federal. But we're doing it in a context in which states set the ground rules. A Keynesian burst at the Federal level gets neutered on the ground by state-level deficit hawks. (I don't know if it's possible to neuter a burst, or if hawks know how to neuter anything, but bear with me.) Nationalizing the system would allow the rules to match the emerging logic of the system. And it wouldn't be 'socializing,' since these are public institutions already. It would just relocate them to a level of government that can actually handle them.

So, wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Should we move public higher ed to a national system?