If You Learn, You Earn

CollegeMany states, in response to a demand for more college graduates at a lower cost, are pushing, proposing, and implementing free tuition for students in their states. The state of New York entered the fray recently, promising free tuition to students whose families earn less than $125,000 a year. The most notable caveat to their plan is a requirement that anyone who gets that tuition break has to work in New York for a certain amount of time or pay back the benefit: nothing like a little 21st century indentured servitude to remind us how difficult economic mobility is this day and age.

I’m not going to pretend that free college tuition doesn’t have it’s appeal. As a college professor and dean, I recognize and believe in the value of higher education, and I’d have to be obtuse not to see that rising costs are problematic for students and parents. In fact, various surveys tell us that incoming college students and their parents see finances as the biggest impediment to earning a degree. Declining federal and state aid forces students to choose between working more hours or accepting student loans. Worse yet, federal financial aid formulas (FAFSA) that determine non-loan aid amounts and eligibility are often ridiculously out of touch with the actual reality of most family’s pocket books.

Realistically, we can’t, despite what too many politicians argue, create efficiencies that significantly reduce the cost of higher education. Certainly, we could eliminate all college sports, multi-cultural centers, weight rooms, climbing walls, Tutor Centers, and other “wasteful” amenities to offer a bare bones educational opportunity. Doing so would save students money, but at the risk of stating the obvious, people’s loyalty to the University of Michigan, Texas A&M, and other major universities isn’t because of their English departments. 102,000 people don’t show up to cheer a great performance in the physics lab. The reality is that students often choose which schools to attend based on the very things that are inefficient and costly. I’ll also remind everyone that there are hundreds of colleges that aren’t UT, Yale, Harvard, and Columbia. The rest of us are scraping by, scrimping and saving, with faculty and staff regularly working overloads. Not many of us are making six-figures and working 30 hours a week. Don’t get me wrong: I’m certain any organization can find ways to cut costs, but there’s not as much fat at most universities as people imagine.

It’s also worth noting that there already exist low-cost educational opportunities. Students can attend community colleges for two years and then chose four-year universities with lower costs. Some might even choose an online university like Western Governor’s University, although last time I checked WGU’s tuition and fees are not that radically different from tuition and fees and many public, regional universities. Technology doesn’t necessarily equal lower costs. Students who are trying to pinch pennies can live at home, assuming, of course, that there is a college within driving distance of their home.

Free-tuition, though, isn’t the solution. At the risk of stating the obvious and insulting anyone’s intelligence, “free” tuition isn’t really free. Much like all those free-use parks in towns across America, someone is picking up the tab. We just aren’t charging you every time you go down the slide.

While I don’t necessarily prescribe to the idea that you get what you pay for, I do think that paying for things adds value. As importantly, earning a degree or certificate benefits both the state and the individual. Paying for college is an investment and last time I checked no one was voluntarily dumping money in my 403B retirement account, giving me free housing, or picking up the tab for lunch. Because they cost me, they have value above. More importantly, I have to work to earn those things.

The first step to our college cost problem, though, has nothing to do with students. We must, as some point, return funding levels from federal and state governments to their 1980 levels. When I went off to college in 1987, government funding for higher ed equaled around 80%. Students had some skin in the game, but anteing up wasn’t cost prohibitive. Various figures and agencies tell us that for every dollar we invest in education, we get a $5.00 return. I’m no financial analyst, but long term a five to one return seems pretty solid.

Notably, though, the return on that investment only occurs if students graduate from college, though. Regardless of degree, college graduates have a lower unemployment rate and have higher lifetime earnings.

Since, from the state’s perspective, graduation is the end game, I’d like to see us develop a funding model that reflects and rewards students as they get closer to graduation. In some ways, I think we can follow the way many athletic programs award scholarships. The lowest scholarship amounts occur the first two years. As you show you can perform, we start raising your funding and lowering your bill. After all, we only get a return on our investment if you actually graduate. Additionally, as courses get more difficult, labs longer, hours in the library basement researching esoteric and difficult ideas increase, students need more time working on college than flipping burgers. Essentially, we’re going to increase your up front cost, but we’re also going to reward you for performance and reduce your back end costs once you prove you will be successful. I realize some students might have to delay the start of college to earn a little money or they might have to work their first two semesters, but for my money completion is more important than easy access.

Any scholarship and grant model has to be predicated on elected officials funding higher education at acceptable levels, recognizing that students who graduate with degrees (or certifications demonstrating mastery of skills that help them get employed) are beneficial to the larger social good. If we continue to defund higher education, we’ll see higher student loan debt and continue with stagnant graduate rates. In today’s dollars, funding from the feds and the states hovers around 35%, pushing the other 65% on to the backs of students and their parents. Let’s start by flipping those numbers, charging students tuition their first two years and then slowing phasing out their costs the closer they get to graduation. We can reward those who demonstrate the ability to learn with the potential to earn.

At that point, I suspect we can let those New Yorkers move anywhere they want. Heck, we’ll even let them move down here to Texas. Maybe.

 

 

 

 

 

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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