Friday, November 27, 2015

Digging Deeper

It’s hard to find good behavioral examples in the news when all the reporters want to talk about is an election more than 11 months from now; but with so many ideas flying around, it makes sense to apply some critical thinking.  Here are some questions to think about, not a critique or evaluation, just some thought-starters.

One idea that intrigues me is free college tuition and fees.  Senator Sanders wants the federal and state governments to share the annual $70 billion cost to make it go away (at public universities).  There are also provisions to “overhaul student loan programs so students and their parents could reduce crushing debt loads.”  “No funding under this program may be used to fund administrator salaries, merit-based financial aid, or the construction of non-academic buildings like stadiums and student centers.”

This raises a number of questions.  It’s not totally free college because there would still be need-based aid and student loads, presumably for room and board and miscellaneous expenses.  Would books be covered?  I guess they are going to get the money to pay for administrator salaries and merit based financial aid from the state funds they now receive, but that adds another level of bookkeeping to keep both those amounts in separate buckets.  Does any tuition or fee money now pay for any of those things?  Does this just add another level of administration instead of simplifying things? 

Public universities already go to the state review boards to obtain funding.  Would there be another board at federal level to keep an eye on this process?  Would there be a kind of federal school committee to set or negotiate rules for teachers’ pay and benefits at all these colleges, as is done at the local level for our public schools?  If not, how does anyone ensure both fairness and that our tax money is spent wisely?  If so, how do universities compete for the best professors or would they all go to the private universities?  And speaking of private universities, would the next program be a voucher program to allow some people to use these public funds for a private education?

Would this program apply only to US citizens?  How would colleges handle students from Asia and India and everywhere else in the world?  Would they be inclined to increase or decrease the number of such admissions (possibly tempted to increase them to pay for administrative salaries)?  Related to that is the question of children of “undocumented workers" who now attend high school for free.

Perhaps a fairer idea would be free college for everyone: tuition, fees, room and board and books.  That would have several beneficial outcomes.  It would totally eliminate the need for student loans.  It would make working your way through college unnecessary, opening up more entry-level jobs for those who choose not to attend college or for those who complete college and are delayed in finding a job.  (Of course that would happen less because people with a degree who couldn’t find a job might just start working on anther free degree with everything included.)  If they didn’t need to work, students could take heavier course loads and attend all year to reduce the time necessary to get a degree (but would there be any incentive to do so?).  This program would not penalize the conscientious parents who saved for college by making them and their sons and daughters ineligible for need-based programs.  It would leave that much more savings for retirement or consumer spending to boost the economy.  It would not have the perverse side effects we see today where adults delay marriage when the effect of two salaries in the family would make the children of one ineligible for need-based aid.

This is not intended to be a critique.  It is more of demonstration to show how many ideas that politicians toss out on the campaign trail become unexpectedly complex when the details are considered.  The voting public must be critical thinkers to ask and challenge, rather than sit back and nod at what seems like a simple solution.

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