If you’re an American paying private college costs, you’re paying twice: once to your private college, and once to your state’s tax collector to support public colleges. It’s worse than unfair. It’s counterproductive. State colleges have a captive audience. Kids attend not because they like what’s offered, but because they can’t afford an alternative. There’s no incentive for state colleges to please prospective customers. As a result, they please trustees and legislators. If instead of subsidizing state schools, taxpayers provided residents with vouchers to be redeemed at the colleges of their choices, all colleges would compete for the same students, and some colleges would cut costs to attract them.
What’s the minimum cost of a bachelor’s degree? Vouchers would answer that question, and inspire others. Why are colleges tax-exempt, for instance? Whether your paying private college costs or not, you’re paying for all colleges in the form of lost tax revenue. And in Connecticut, that loss is unfathomable. The Yale endowment of $20 billion is equal to the annual budget for our State and greater than the gross domestic product of 108 countries. And it grows at more than 10% per year. But Yale pays no tax on its endowment or educational property because higher education is assumed to be a public service. But what kind of public service could possibly warrant that kind of tax-break?
Colleges provide entertainment in the form of sports, but you could get that at a much lower cost by simply fielding state teams, rather than state college teams. Colleges enable the ideas that fuel health care and the economy, but both are in ruins. America ranks last in health among peer nations (National Research Council, “U. S. Health in International Perspective: Shortened Lives, Poorer Health”) and the economy only serves the ultra rich. Median CEO pay, for example, exceeds $10 million/year, while the median full-time worker earns less than $42,000/year. Yale is popular because it makes lots of CEOs. Could anyone think that’s a public service? College costs are bigger than ever and ordinary college graduates have smaller career prospects and bigger debts than ever. Where’s the public service?
Colleges treat financial aid as public service. Yale brags about its scholarship program for New Haven high school graduates and its no-cost program for low-income Yale undergraduates. But financial aid just allows some smart, lucky poor kids to get rich along with the smart, lucky rich ones. It does nothing to diminish disparity or protect our environment or foster liberty and justice for all. If you want any or all of that, vouchers are your ticket.
By empowering customers to shop, vouchers will do for college what the free market has done for appliances and cars and clothes and everything else that’s for sale, drive variety and quality up, while driving prices down. Some colleges will seek students by cutting frills and delivering meaningful, public-service-oriented, education. To the extent that students appreciate this kind of education, these colleges will flourish, and to that extent, disparity will decline, our environment will recover, and liberty and justice for all will once again become an American ideal.
When all is said and done, it’s not the college degree or the money it earns that matters, but only what students learn to love and what they learn to do for love. Let’s use vouchers to help them love better and do more public service.
Reply to Dix@hartford.edu