Wednesday, August 02, 2017

The Public Option

If you haven’t yet seen Jeff Selingo’s thoughts on affirmative action in selective college admissions, the column is worth reading.  Broadly, he argues that while diversifying the student body at some elite schools is a positive step in itself, the real issue is the designation of elite schools in the first place.  To which I say, let’s take that a little farther.

The conflict over admissions to selective places is based on two assumptions.  The first is that the demand for seats there exceeds the supply, which seems pretty clear.  The second is that seats there are worth far more than seats at less exclusive places.  It’s only worth joining a club that might not accept you as a member.

That second assumption strikes me as clearly unnecessary.  We could choose, if we wanted, to invalidate it.  If we did, the first assumption would likely die a natural death.  

In Canada and the Scandinavian countries, broadly speaking, there isn’t the same rigid hierarchy of prestige in higher ed.  Some universities are better known than others, but nearly all public higher education is respected.  If you go to the University of Ottawa rather than the University of Toronto, your life isn’t over.  People can make decisions based on location, or aesthetic preference, or programmatic specialization.  And for-profit higher education simply never gained the foothold there that it has here.

That’s what a strong public option will do.  It will relieve pressure on the elites by offering reasonable, accessible options of recognized quality.  And it will crowd out the for-profits by denying them a reason to exist.  

Put differently, the best way to attack for-profits isn’t to attack for-profits.  It’s to strengthen community and state colleges.  Make the public options high-quality and let that quality be known.  Dissipate the need for for-profits, and the ones that can’t prove themselves will fade away.

When I was at DeVry, we weren’t afraid of Princeton, or even of Rutgers.  We were afraid of Middlesex County College.  The county college offered more options, lower prices, and a locally respected name.  DeVry competed on marketing and specialization; over time, that proved not to be enough.  

The beauty of a strong public option is that it doesn’t rule out private ones.  It just forces the private ones to do a better job, which benefits everyone.  Those that couldn’t add value wouldn’t survive.  Survival would be predicated on adding value -- doing a better job in a given area, like Juilliard with music -- or adding values, such as a distinct religious identity.  

Defunding the publics is a false economy.  It creates a scarcity at the top, which leads to all manner of zero-sum hypercompetition, and it creates room on the bottom for people with other agendas.  Compare the cost of forgiving loans for Corinthian students to the cost of improving the local community college; the latter is less expensive, and does far more social good.

In the community college world, and at non-selective colleges generally, affirmative action in admissions is a non-issue; we take everybody.  And that’s not at the expense of diversity, either; nationally, community colleges are the most racially and economically diverse sector of higher education.  

Straightforward arguments for more funding seem to have landed on deaf ears, so maybe we can try these.  Strong public institutions offer a way out of the admissions arms race, and offer an effective and legally bulletproof way to solve the quandary of for-profits.  Even better, they already exist.  All we have to do is respect them, both verbally and fiscally.  It’s time to rebuild the middle.