Monday, June 3, 2013

Higher Education as a "Business": We Can't Have It Both Ways

This story in this morning's Inside Higher Ed caught my eye:
Facing Deficit, Ivy Tech May Eliminate Campuses
I worked in Indianapolis from 1999 through 2006, which covers some of the period mentioned in this article. During that time, Ivy Tech expanded enormously and was very much the "toast of the town". Politicians of both parties, business leaders, civil notables - everybody had something good to say about the Ivy Tech system and the wonderful things it was doing for the Indiana economy.

It turns out that all of that great good work came at a price: Ivy Tech was running at a loss. Their business model was a typical one for public higher education in the past: collect tuition below the cost of providing the education, with the difference made up by state subsidy dollars.

This arrangement reflected an historical compromise understanding: that higher education is both a private good (in that it helps the individual better their career and make more money personally) and a public good (in that it creates a better-educated and more skilled workforce, driving economic development). The partial-subsidy model, in which the cost of education is shared by the student and the taxpayers, reflects this balance.

But as I've blogged about before, this compromise has been eroding for some time in favor of a private-good-only approach. This news item from Ivy Tech is just the latest (and one of the most dramatic) instance of what this really means. One implication, of course, is that community college is about to get more expensive in Indiana - and it will now be out of reach for many who were served by those 20 closing campuses who cannot afford the time & money to travel to another one.

For all the concern on Capitol Hill about "hollowing out" the nation's military, we hear very little about the ongoing forces hollowing out the nation's higher education system - and with it, our economic prospects. If Time would stop running cover articles that assume a private-goods perspective (picked up by politicians with ideological axes to grind), it would help move us forward. We need to find a way to have this conversation free from the dogmas currently tearing us apart. Where are Nelson Rockefeller and the Chamber of Commerce when you need them?

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