Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Dropping Money Out of Airplanes in New York

By Richard Vedder

I guess I am naive. The Spellings Commission on Higher Education, while far from perfect, made some very good recommendations for change at the federal level. Though they did not go far enough (which almost led me to NOT sign the report), but their proposals were mostly constructive ideas designed to improve American higher education. Based on this experience, I have, on several occasions, suggested that individual states have "little Spellings Commissions" to serve as catalysts for reform.

Maybe that was not such a good idea. The state of New York has a new higher education commission report on higher education in the Empire State. It emphasizes "giving the schools more resources." Of the top four recommendations in the report's executive summary --three call for spending more money. New York needs a $3 billion research fund (why $3billion? why not $30 billion? --who knows?). The SUNY and CUNY systems need 2,000 more professors, including 250 distinguished scholars. A new state funded student loan system is needed. Important things to the Spellings Commission --measuring outcomes, providing more accountability, etc., are given low or no billing. The gist of the report is "we need more money to be more competitive."

The report is terrible. A perusal of its 93 pages shows little to no evidence that added resources would have a positive payoff. There are no serious attempts to promote efficiency, merely efforts to spend more money. The emphasis is on inputs, not outcomes. Adopting its recommendations would, I suspect, make education in New York more costly, less efficient, and would do little or nothing to make New York more competitive --indeed, it probably would worsen New York's already tattered reputation as a high cost place to do business (since it would no doubt increase pressures to raise taxes).

It is not surprising the Higher Education Commission made these types of recommendations. More than one-third of the members were university presidents or chancellors, most actively serving. Three labor union leaders were on the panel, along with a handful of professors, students and trustees. Most of the members were people in the higher education community itself. Business was virtually unrepresented --one Wall Street type, not a single representative of a business that manufactures things. No business associations like the Chamber of Commerce or the National Federation of Independent Business. In short, it was predominantly a group of academics saying "give us more money." To be sure, there are a few sensible things about articulation between institutions, etc., included in the report to give it a veneer of respectability, but on the whole it is an effort of the rent seekers, for the rent seekers, and by the rent seekers --an exercise in ripping off taxpayers instead of dealing with the real issues --soaring college costs, dubious levels of learning achievement, falling productivity, etc.

The higher education community is tone deaf to the need for fundamental reform. Whether it will be able to maintain the "public be damned" attitude much longer is a debatable proposition.

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