The Arizona Republic
Robert Robb COLUMN
What if we funded students, not Ariz. universities?
Arizona’s budget woes continue, and the scalpel moves once again toward the state universities, because they are one of the few large areas of spending where the Legislature wields unrestricted authority.
And once again the universities predict death, destruction and a feudal economy for Arizona if their budgets are cut.
These are difficult claims to evaluate, because Arizona’s three universities are huge bureaucracies with multiple funding sources and a blizzard of programs.
Given the difficulty of sorting through the universities’ resource claims, perhaps it’s time to rethink how Arizona funds higher education, time to engage in what Charles Murray calls a thought experiment.
What if, instead of funding schools, Arizona funded students?
Arizona, of course, now funds schools of higher education, not students. State appropriations flow directly to the universities based on political decisions made by legislators. Political infighting over university appropriations tends to be the fiercest in the state.
The state constitution requires that instruction at the universities be “as nearly free as possible,” so tuition is a highly restricted source of revenue.
The behemoth universities Arizona has are a natural outgrowth of how higher education is funded, as are their largely impersonal undergraduate experiences and low graduation rates.
Now, let’s assume Arizona instead funded students. Milton Friedman observed some time ago that there is really no need to socialize the cost of higher education, since the benefits are tangible and the beneficiaries easily identifiable. Private financing mechanisms would develop so that the costs of higher education could be borne by the beneficiaries out of their higher lifetime incomes.
But that undoubtedly takes the thought experiment too far. So, let’s assume the cost of higher education continues to be socialized, but in the form of grants or loans directly to students. How would higher education in Arizona be different?
Well, for one thing, students would probably be more diligent. For many students, a college education is too much of a freebie, paid for primarily by the state and parents. Students who are spending what they perceive as “their money” are likely to be more serious about effort and outcomes.
Universities undoubtedly would be vastly different places. Rather than a few educational behemoths, odds are Arizona would have numerous smaller institutions of higher learning, specializing in undergraduate education and featuring a high level of interaction with faculty.
Course offerings would also likely be more muscular.
Taxpayer support for higher education is justified to some degree by development of educated, productive workers. But a system that funds schools captures this benefit imperfectly.
Student assistance could take the form of loans, forgivable based upon subsequent years spent living and working in the state. Those who take the training Arizona taxpayers provide and then leave would have to pay it back.
Funding students also might increase political support for higher education. Funding educational opportunities for young adults directly is a more attractive idea than funding large institutions.
Moving higher education funding from schools to students is clearly fraught with practical difficulties, given what has grown up out of past patterns and practices. But it is a superior approach, for students and the state.
Robert Robb, an Arizona Republic columnist, writes about public policy and politics in Arizona. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org