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Why Build New California Universities When Eastern Classrooms Go Begging?

July 16, 1989|JOHN MUELLER | John Mueller grew up in Los Angeles, attended the University of Chicago, received his graduate education at UCLA, and now teaches at the University of Rochester (which, while doing well at attracting students, would be happy to have more Californians)

Demographics are creating an absurdity for higher education. In much of the country--particularly the Northeast and Midwest--the number of high school graduates is declining. As a result, colleges and universities there are experiencing reduced enrollments and in some cases are going out of business. Meanwhile, California is thinking about pouring tax money into the creation of universities (including three new, fantastically expensive University of California campuses) to handle its burgeoning surplus of young people.

The solution to this absurdity is clear. Instead of building new schools, California would be better off using at least some of its money to encourage Californians to go to college back East.

Not counting the ever-accelerating expense of building a campus in the first place, it costs at least $20,000 to educate the average undergraduate at the University of California. If each qualified California high school graduate were automatically awarded a state scholarship of a fraction of that amount to go to school elsewhere, many of them would enter Eastern schools, filling classes there and saving Californians millions--eventually billions--in tax money. To avoid simply rewarding the rich, many of whom already send their children to Eastern colleges, the scholarships could be graduated by income.

There is something of a precedent: New York state has a tuition-assistance program that gives money to New York students to go to any college, public or private, in the state. A California version would allow its students to use the money at any acceptable school in the country.

Although the higher-education system in California is excellent in many ways, it has tended to reduce the mix of educational opportunities for Californians. Because of the existence of huge, attractive, low-tuition state schools, smaller, more-individualized private colleges have never developed in California the way they have in the East. By assisting Californians to attend such schools, the state would not only save enormous amounts of tax money; it also would provide a wider range of higher-education alternatives for broad segments of its population--not just for the rich. And it can't hurt California if more of its future leaders have early contact with their peers in other parts of the country.

A California tuition-assistance program also could change with the times. If, for example, California found its population of high school graduates to be declining, it could reduce the program, encouraging more students to stay home. If it builds new campuses to handle its looming surplus, it might eventually find itself with a set of expensive, useless buildings to maintain.

The program should appeal to those who are concerned about putting some controls on California's remarkable, but sometimes harmful, growth. The planned new campuses, of course, will create jobs and stimulate the economy, but at the same time they will tend to drive colleges and universities in the East out of business, encouraging people there to join the crowd moving to California. If the money were used instead to improve transportation or reduce pollution, or if it were returned to the citizens in lowered taxes, the same funds would aid California's economy but without wastefully creating unemployment in the East.

The goal of the state education system is to provide quality higher-education opportunities for deserving Californians. It does not follow, however, that these opportunities must be found within California.

It may seem more than a bit radical to suggest that state tax money be used to support out-of-state colleges, but the state now buys plenty of things from other states when they can be obtained more inexpensively there. Why not education as well? By encouraging more of its high school graduates to attend colleges outside the state, California could save money, moderate its growth, increase the variety of educational opportunities for its citizens, maintain flexibility to meet future needs and help the many fine colleges whose only mistake has been to be located in some other state.

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