By Richard Vedder
I have long been struck by how the Bush Administration believes most great ideas in education emanate from Texas. Of course the Prez is Texan, and many of his key White House advisers came from Texas. The Department of Education is run by two Texans --Margaret Spellings and Sara Martinez Tucker. The chair of the Spellings Commission, Charles Miller, is from Texas. Occasionally I try to suggest to one of these individuals that some good ideas come from outside the Lone Star State, usually with only grudging acceptance that I might be right. Texans think they are pretty cool.
Yet, sometimes the evidence supports this self-confidence. Texas A & M University is doing something next summer that I have advocated for years --drastically reducing summer school tuition. The marginal cost of using university buildings 12 months a year instead of 9 or 10 is very low, and salaries paid for summer school instructors are usually far lower, on a per course basis, than those prevailing during the regular year. In the long run, having more students attend summer school can save enormous amounts of resources --not only university resources, but also those the students themselves. By graduating in three years instead of four, or at least four years instead of five, students gain another year of gainful employment, becoming greater net contributors to society rather than net users of society's resources.
Using price mechanisms to more efficiently utilize resources can be extended further. Classrooms are usually empty on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Perhaps peak load pricing should be used --the history department has to pay rent on classrooms used on Monday through Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., but no rent for use of those rooms early in the morning, late in the afternoon or in the evenings, or on Fridays and Saturdays. Students taking courses in low demand that cost relatively little to teach (medieval history, for example), maybe should pay lower tuition than courses that are more expensive to teach (finance, for example) and for which demand is relatively high. Prices should be slashed on unpopular dormitory rooms but raised on those much in demand. Professors should be given spending accounts from which they pay for travel, supplies, phone calls, etc. Professors demanding especially nice offices maybe should have to pay rent for the space, chargeable to the spending accounts. Maybe some professors will have to choose between having a luxurious office, parking next to the office, or being able to take a trip or two each year.
I also read (thanks to Whiz Kid Jim Coleman) that Kentucky has some good ideas too. It is trying to lure adult college dropouts back to finish their degrees, offering to reduce the hassle of returning to school after a prolonged absence. While this could be a boondoggle, conceptually it is a decent approach at minimizing the dropout rate (my enthusiasm for the idea is reduced however by the fact that, deep down, I believe college attendance is above, not below, the optimal level, and that many dropping out did not belong in college in the first place).