By Richard Vedder
This is a tale of three mythical universities --all of which are attainable, all of which would serve their constituencies well. Diversity, choice, differences --that is what America is all about, and what our higher ed system should be about. Let me describe three different types of universities that we could have in our country, and, to some extent, we do have.
Our Oklahoma State friend Vance Fried is working on devising a plan for a high quality university that would cost $7000 a student to society --whether those bills are paid for from tuition, taxpayers, etc. It would have limited course offerings, not a lot of expensive administrators, a modest number of majors, etc. --but it would offer good, quality instruction that would prepare students for the real world. The for-profits have shown this is doable, and our friend Randy Best says it can be done for far less than even $7000 using electronic means of dissemination of knowledge. $7000 U is perfect for the low or middle income kid of reasonable but not exceptional talent who looks at college as a ticket for a decent career.
I have long said that some school ought to clean up on enrolling good students from prosperous, affluent homes ---families making between $100,000 and $300,000 a year. Colleges shower aid on low income kids, and the uber rich do not worry about tuition fees. But the nicer suburbs of America are filled with lots of kids going to pretty decent high schools from families with attentive parents. These families currently largely pay close to sticker prices, and while they are prosperous, $40,000 or more annual fees and charges are something of a strain. I have always thought some prominent university should slash tuition fees in general, financed by reduced tuition discounting for the poor or special talented students. Lower the sticker cost for tuition only from, say, $33,000 a year to $22,000 a year, and applications would pour in. Such a good would be underrepresented by poor kids, but most good schools are anyway. Harvard took a step in this direction with its new price reductions for kids from families with $60,000 to $180,000 income.
There ought to be schools that accept kids on one criteria only --prospects for academic success. They take only the best, no matter how rich one's parents are, whether they are alums or not, etc. Academic promise is the criteria --we don't care if you spend your free time helping orphans in Ghana, chasing women in bars, or trying to save the whales. Cal Tech pretty closely meets these criteria now. The Big Three Ivies (Harvard, Yale and Princeton) certainly are heavily merit-based, but money sometimes talks (BIG money, to be sure),and admissions people go for students who have politically correct backgrounds or behaviors, reducing the merit component of the admission decision. Harvard, Yale and Princeton could convert to Meritorious U all the way, given the quality of applicants, and each could lower undergraduate tuition to zero and disband the financial aid office --- but they won't, partly because of alumni pressure, partly because of greed (they want to take kids from rich families as that enhances wealth in the long run), and partly because they honestly believe there is more to life than being first rate academically.
Of course we have many other models. The Community College has elements of $7000 U. Some public flagships (the University of Virginia particularly comes to mind) are much like Yuppie U. Antioch College, on the brink of extinction in Yellow Springs, is a niche (progressive left) school, just as Hillsdale College (conservative/libertarian) is. And then there is Berea College, which is the un-Yuppie school appealing to the poor. Meaningful choice makes our system of higher education vibrant, often very good. Now, if we could just make it more efficient. I wonder if government went away and ignored higher education --what would we have? My guess is, we would have a pretty good system of schools, lots of diversity, and significantly lower costs than exist today. That, however, is a subject for another blog (or maybe even book).