Monday, November 13, 2006

Rethinking Higher Education

This morning (November 13) the Iowa City Press-Citizen published an op ed of mine, Nicholas Johnson, "Rethinking Higher Education," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 13, 2006. (And see the earlier, Nicholas Johnson, "'Free' College Education," September 9, 2006.)

It's primary focus is on the rising costs of college education, the need for re-thinking public support, and a couple of suggestions for stimulating that re-assessment.

The implicit underlying themes, and my motivation in writing about them, are (a) college education, and more, are as basic as junior high, and then high school, were in the past, (b) even so, a half-century ago our predecessors saw sufficient benefit to college to make it available free, or at radically reduced rates compared to today; there is no reason we are not even more obliged to provide that much public education now, (c) "state universities" are now national institutions and should be more substantially funded from federal sources, and (d) we simply cannot afford, either as a matter of national interest or of Iowa's economic growth, to have a single young person -- who is qualified to benefit from college -- be denied that education because of lack of financial ability.

The column is just a think piece, not a blueprint ready for implementation. It is designed to stimulate ideas that might be more practical than any laid out there.

I discussed some additional ideas this noon with a colleague who had read the column. The same principles I outlined for shared student-federal government assumption of costs could be applied to a state program designed to provide incentives to Iowans, and others, to stay in the state after graduation.

It might be possible to create something analogous to a TIF. That is, a university student would bear responsibility for some (or all) of the cost of his or her Iowa undergraduate education. But the payback of those costs could be such that (a) paybacks on the loans would be credited against state income tax obligations, or (b) payments on taxes would be credited against the loans.

Such a program would provide, by definition, that these offsets would exist only so long as the student remained in Iowa or was otherwise paying Iowa income taxes. Once they leave the state, they would still pay back the "loan" over time, but the offsets would no longer be available.

There are lots of other variables on these themes -- but all involve trying to create a system for the delivery of higher education such that financial inability does not remain as one of the many hurdles students need to vault on their way to preparing themselves to make a contribution to Iowa's economy and quality of life.

Of course, if these or any similar ideas were to move from discussion topics to actual proposals there would be an enormous number of "administrative details" to work through. But that's always the case with any public policy proposal. And, as with any other proposal, the toughest job is getting agreement on the goals, following which at least many of the details tend to resolve themselves.

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Nicholas Johnson's Main Web Site
Nicholas Johnson's Iowa Rain Forest ("Earthpark") Web Site
Nicholas Johnson's Blog, FromDC2Iowa
Nicholas Johnson's Blog Index

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