20 July 2009

The Public Option in Higher Education

The health care reform plan being now considered in Congress prominently contains a public option, a publicly controlled and inspired health plan designed to compete with private health plans. The rationale behind the proposal is that such an option would keep everybody honest, by forcing private health plan to compete against an alternative that is not profit-driven and large enough to achieve economies of scale.

The system of higher education in California was also originally established as a "public option" — after all, this is exactly what the whole idea of a land-grant institution (as it emerged after the Civil War) was about. The public option in higher education has been under attack for a long time. As repeatedly pointed out, state funding of higher education has been steadily decreasing on a per-student basis to the point where, for instance, the University of California only draws about 17% of its budget from state general funds. This was the idea of the "Compact:" bring UC fees in line with tuition at other institutions, essentially at a point where students would pay their own way through the University (and accordingly disenfranchise students who could not afford to do so), a process sometimes referred to as the "Michuganization" of the University of California. But that is the end of UC as a land-grant institution, the end of the public option in higher education in California.

So we have two models here for funding the University: (1) a model according to which UC functions essentially like a private institution, setting fees accordingly, with very modest support from the State; and (2) the original land-grant model: the public option.

As a UC faculty member, as long as my own self-interest takes center stage, I would have no problems with (1). In fact, my colleagueas and I would have probably avoided salary cuts under this option. The question is whether the faculty at UC and the citizens of the State have any interest in bringing the university back to option (2), in trying to rescue what at some point was the most ambitious and successful experiment in public higher education, anywhere, any time.

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