“Free” Higher Education in Wisconsin: Obstacles, and Possibilities pt 2 of 3

(Part 2, on non budgetary issues blocking adoption of “free” education.  I’ve decided to do another part looking at the European system of education so that will happen next, with Part 4 being Solutions and New Ideas.  Capiche?)

Where does that leave us then?

It leaves option 1 unsustainable and requiring more funds than our state (which is one of the worst 15 or so hit by the recession in terms of budget deficits) has available or will in the next two decades.

Option two is the one with heated debate and strong opinions on both sides.  My opinion, is that on a large scale it is impossible and impractical for the United States to switch ALL public universities to free tuition.  That is not to say that SOME couldn’t be free but for the major flagship institutions, it would be impossible for the Chancellor/President to manage.

The first reason is legal.  These Universities are the domain of the states, meaning EACH state would have to adopt this in turn.  Say Wisconsin and California (with our big nemesis Berkeley) adopt a law making tuition free at all state institutions.  Naturally, states don’t have unlimited resources and a tax would unlikely make up the difference in tuition lost (unless the lawmakers went crazy and fully raised taxes to fund this, something only the staunchest Democrat would have the cajones to do), so as part of this plan, professors would not make near as much money as they were before, or increases will be minimal.  So even if Berkeley would no longer have the vast funds available to poach our best professors, what’s stopping Michigan? Or Minnesota? Or any other university in the US?  Our faculty would be fleeced of the best and brightest because the law is not universally applied.   What President/Chancellor would be bold enough to allow the talent that sustains the Universities reputation to brazenly leave?

Relating to that, the federal government obviously could not interfere because the Universities are by and large run through the state system and could not break all sorts of laws by “annexing” control of them.  A possible work around to this does exist however and will be discussed in the SOLUTIONS section of this series.

The second reason is practical.  If tuition at UW-Madison was suddenly free, what would the application pool look like?  It would skyrocket!  We only have facilities for Appx. 6000 Freshmen (and not even for that amount) so how would these students get selected? I imagine the admissions standards and averages would also take a jump, making Madison much more difficult to get into because the lowest ACTs that get in will be 29s or 30s, if not higher.  How else will they decide?  Additionally, this implicitly makes Madison more exclusive, as typically students with better primary education score better, and typically those students have more money to pay for the better education.  I don’t want to go to schools with everyone who is just like me and I don’t think many who choose a flagship school like Wisconsin want that either.

Thirdly, it’s a matter of what we want from our school.  Madison is regarded globally as a leader in education, mentioned in the same breath (albeit after a comma) with the Ivies, and prestigious European schools.  A degree from UW-Madison is recognized as assurance that the student is competent and capable to take on high level work without additional training and receive good recommendations going into the professional world because of our many successful alums.  This degree has achieved the value it has because we have funded it well.  Tuition at Madison is higher because our degree is worth more!  Better faculty with better connections, leads to a better degree.  Nothing against the other UW schools but if they develop a superstar professor, Madison will likely poach them.  And that is how the flagship is supposed to act.  It is supposed to be the one with the best talent, and the best facilities, to provide the best education, but, like our Mustang, if you want the value, you need to pay the price.

Other UW schools cost substantially less than Madison (The UW-Colleges just received a 2nd consecutive tuition freeze allowing low income or those otherwise inhibited from going to a comprehensive, a pretty dang good deal to get an associates degree or half of a bachelors) while still offering quality education.  While perhaps an issue for some, for which I am sympathetic and we should find a solution for, the cost of attending UW-Rock County is not going to mortgage your future.  I know more successful people to have graduated from smaller schools than flagship institutions anyway (probably because these other schools cumulatively graduate more) so there is clearly no shame in attending a smaller institution.  I have friends who chose UW-River Falls because they liked that campus the best and preferred the smaller school.  In short, the UW system IS most definitely accessible to near every level of income as it is, and we should feel  fortunate to have that as most states do not have anywhere close to the comprehensiveness of the UW system.

Finally, I would like to point out the obvious but sometimes overlooked ideology that some people just don’t believe in subsidizing others.   Whether its healthcare, education, or welfare, some people fundamentally believe that this is not a societal issue and while I disagree with that premise (mostly, I’ll qualify) it’s one that many lawmakers hold and makes realizing this incredible difficult.  Of course, perceptions change, and new people are voted in and you can always negotiate, but it is important to remember that there would be simple ideological opposition to the whole concept as well.

Ok, part 2 is done, I’ll have part 3 on European systems up sometime later this week when I get the chance, and then finally, our favorite, my solutions section 😉  Au revoir!

-Adam

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