Posted by: Louis Lavelle on January 10, 2012
How much of your annual salary would you be willing to fork over in exchange for a college education? A group in California thinks it should be 5 percent for the first 20 years after graduation.
Fix UC is the group making this bold proposal. The organization consists of the editorial board of the Highlander student newspaper at UC Riverside, which is part of a UC system that had more than its share of financial troubles during the recession and where tuition has nearly quadrupled in the last 10 years. After nine months in the incubation phase, the proposal—dubbed the UC Student Investment Proposal—was published today, and goes before the Board of Regents next week.
Here’s how it would work. Once fully implemented, UC students would pay nothing to attend—no tuition, no fees, no housing. Instead, they would pay a portion of their annual salary every year for 20 years. For most students it would be a flat 5 percent. Out-of-state students and those who avail themselves of on-campus housing would pay more. If you transferred into the UC system, stayed in California after graduation, or went to work in the public sector, you’d pay less. And if you transferred out (or dropped out) you’d have to pay tuition for your time as a UC student immediately.
The goals go well beyond making college affordable and eliminating UC's dependence on increasingly unreliable state aid, although those are two big reasons for the proposal. Fix UC says it hopes the idea will encourage a "shift in thought" about higher education. College would no longer be about payment for services rendered. It would be an investment you pay off over time.
This may seem like a radical idea, but it's not all that different from Social Security. Parents, especially, will find a lot to like about this idea. They currently bear much of the brunt of rising college costs, and if Fix UC has its way, they would be completely off the hook.
Of course, college students could find a 5 percent payment every year just as onerous as a college loan payment, especially when they're trying to buy a house, save for retirement, or care for an elderly parent. It's also not clear that the Fix UC plan solves UC's funding problems. Right now, state funding for higher education is dependent on a vibrant state economy. That doesn't change under the Fix UC plan--if grads are unemployed they're not making payments to UC. That's the way it works. That means the budget for the UC system will be constrained by the number of grads making their 5 percent payments and the salaries they're earning. It's hard to budget when you don't know if grads will be social workers or investment bankers. And what happens when hard times hit? Do you turn students away?
There's another downside: do we want colleges with a vested interest in producing high-paid graduates? It seems like a recipe for limited choices. In China, entire majors are being discontinued if they don't produce employable grads. Do we really want California overrun by engineers?
Is this a crazy idea? Or is it just crazy enough to work?
UPDATE: (Jan. 13) I just got off the phone with a spokesperson for the UC system who told me that two vice presidents will be meeting with the Fix UC group when the Regents hold their meeting at the Riverside campus on Jan. 18-19. The Fix UC plan isn't on the meeting agenda, so there will be no vote or any other official action at that time.
I also spoke to William Tierney, director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California, who was pessimistic about the prospects for the Fix UC plan.
While a similar plan has worked well in Australia, and the Fix UC plan itself has its merits, Tierney said California leaders lacked the political will to make it happen, at least for now. "For the UC to do this is not simply a board decision. The governor would weigh in, the legislature would weigh in, and all of a sudden this becomes a political process. Unfortunately the decision-making apparatus right now is not prepared to make significant decisions like this."
He added: "Is it possible that a discussion like this could happen and in five years it would be implemented? I wouldn't reject that out of hand."
Tierney said it was a "tragedy" that what passes for educational policy in California is a sustained exercise in budget cutting, but he doesn't see that changing any time soon.