When the Public Coffers Run Dry

Michael O'Hare will probably be surprised to find that I agree with him (one hopes pleasantly), but I think that his post on higher education is extremely well done.  He makes two important points.  First, the American model of education really is superior to the notion of making it free, and not merely because this usually represents a net transfer to the affluent:

One of the less useful tropes of the current California uproar is that "Education should be free!" Exactly what could this mean, if taken seriously?  The best I can make of it is either a silly plea that facts be turned upside down by magic, like "Brussels sprouts should taste good!" or a proposition that it should be offered at a price of zero. Carry all the signs you wish, but education consumes real economic resources, hence has a real cost no matter what its price. So we're talking about who should pay for whose, and how.  European experiments with zero-price education have not gone so well; many European students are as well-trained and capable and interesting company as our best, but a lot more are flailing around for years, getting very bad educations in overcrowded and shabby facilities, from profs whose main concern is their second and third jobs. Even highly subsidized state schools here have significant prices that help students stay focused on finishing up and getting on with it, and minimum unit requirements to stay registered along with grading in which it is possible to fail. The problem is that subconsciously we understand price to be an important signal of value, and to some degree "what you get for nothing you value at nothing."  Giving it away at the college level seems to signal for many students that it's an entitlement, and delivered to them, rather than an opportunity to invest their own effort productively.

The other is that shutting down prior entitlements suddenly is a very bad thing, even if you're the kind of heartless conservative who hates entitlements:

In sum, if we were setting up the system from scratch, there's no reason it couldn't be based on full-cost tuition, discounted by some estimate of the external benefits the educated provide to all of us (but no fair loading unreasonable amounts of research cost into it), lots of loans, and salaries that better reflect the public benefits of employment choices of people like poets, schoolteachers, and luthiers. However, we go to reform our schooling with the social and economic structures we have, not the one we wish to have, and especially in California, that structure has several iterations of a deal whereby generation t receives a big endowment of personal, social, and physical capital from generation (t-1) that enables it to consume lots of resources and have a happy life, while still adding to (and maintaining) that kind of capital to bequeath to generation (t+1).  The current generation of California voters has broken that deal, realizing it would be even nicer for them to just consume everything they earn and leave my students to fend for themselves educationally and in lots of other ways.  They are making the transition to full-price education quickly, ignorantly, and heartlessly under the malign influence of leadership, especially Republican Party leadership, that has made an ignorant and idiotic worship of markets and private wealth into an ideology, and abetted by catastrophic constitutional decisions through an initiative process that was the solution to a problem Californians had at the beginning of the last century.

I'll leave the calumny about Republicans, and brussels sprouts, aside, and focus on the core, which is important.  People plan their lives around public programs.  Allowing an unsustainable program to run until it comes to a screeching halt is often worse than having no program.  The UC system is very good, and I am in no way suggesting that we would be better off if it didn't exist.  But many, many California students, and their parents, planned their lives around a reasonable expectation of what in-state tuition would be.  The protests are childish, but the rage underneath them is understandable:  if you suddenly have to leave school because legislators have broken your implied social contract, you're probably going to be pretty mad.

California could have dealt with its budget problems gradually--it's not like you couldn't see this mismatch coming, unless you thought that asset prices would always rise at 10% a year.  But legislators wanted to give voters goodies now, and voters rewarded them for it.  Now everyone's getting what they asked for:  disaster.