Richard Vetter has an interesting article at Minding the Campus with a strange start. You should read the whole thing as vouchers for college is an interesting idea. Near the beginning of Let’s Privatize State Colleges he categorizes colleges:
Some of them are renowned highly selective research institutions like the University of California at Berkeley or the University of Michigan, while others are relatively obscure schools with an open admissions policy. But all receive some degree of subsidization from the state government where they are physically located.
Writers love groups of three: Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear. In Bonanza there is Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe. In the Brady Bunch there is a dad with three boys marries a mom with three daughters. When you add in the Brady’s housekeeper there are three groups of three. Perfect. Yet Richard has just two: Berkeley and open admissions. It is particularly strange because the middle, what we will call comprehensives, is almost surely the majority of state college enrollment. Here is a 2016 story for the University of Wisconsin System. There are (rounding) 43,000 students at Madison (a Berkeley clone), 11,000 at the colleges (they have open admissions or close to it) out of 179,000. The remaining 125,000 or 70 percent are enrolled elsewhere. To call the 125,000 comprehensives is slightly expansive but that is what we are going with. States will vary but comprehensives are likely a majority of enrollment nationwide.
Sidebar: The University of Wisconsin Milwaukee has 26,000 students and doesn’t fit as a comprehensive because it has a significant doctoral program but it is not, sorry, Berkeley. The Carnegie classification is much more detailed. Check the numbers at the link. There are 130 doctoral schools with very high research and 741 masters degree schools which is the traditional definition of a comprehensive. We will use the term comprehensive to include these second tier research programs and some schools without a masters program. We know there are more categories. End Sidebar.
The comprehensives, as defined in the sidebar, are the biggest group of students. Richard is not just talking about Berkeley. Richard has a neat idea: Let’s give money to needy and/or accomplished individuals rather than schools. He says:
Why don’t we provide vouchers for college attendance like some states do for students going to K-12 schools? The aid could be more explicitly targeted to kids who are either relatively poor or who excel academically.
We like vouchers for K-12 but are not supportive of Richard’s proposal for three (there is that number again) reasons: gamesmanship, lack of confidence in the state, and it is not a priority. First, there is the opportunity for gamesmanship. Do 529 accounts count? Is your parents’ income and assets considered if you go into the armed forces and then return to school? The current system has enough of these challenges. Making the potential returns bigger will only exacerbate the current challenges.
Second, we are expecting each state to come up with and adjust a system that prevents gamesmanship and deals with grad students, veterans, varying programs, and finances. For example, 150 credits are required to sit for the CPA exam in most states. Do you get five years in accounting but four years in finance? We are not confident that the state will make things better. Colleges have employee contracts that are set up before enrollment. Under Richard’s system when a college does not reach enrollment targets there will be a big financial problem. What will be the state’s plan for short-term versus long-term financial problems. Will contracts be honored?
Third, and most importantly, state college vouchers should not be a priority for conservatives. The reason vouchers for K-12 are a priority is to encourage competition. Comprehensives are already intensely competitive within state and sometimes among states and they often have a program or two where they compete with the flagship school(s). The flagship schools compete among states. There is lots of overlap in the Wisconsin (Madison) and Minnesota application pools. College vouchers might increase competition but there is already intense competition.
If we are going to spend our time on education we need to worry about (of course, three things) K-12 vouchers, union issues, and free speech, especially in college. Vouchers for colleges is a fun topic to kick around among conservatives (why not allow students to use them at private schools?) but it shouldn’t be a priority.