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...