Dynamist Blog

What Are State Universities For?

This USA Today feature by Mary Beth Marklein highlights the complaints of OK-but-not-great in-state students who find themselves turned down at state universities to make way for better out-of-state students who also pay much higher tuition. Taxpayers are peeved that their kids aren't entitled to the education they paid for, and they're winning some political allies.

"It was anathema to me that this university is funded by taxpayers who are being denied acceptance while out-of-state [students] are allowed to come in," says state representative Jim McGee of Florence. He said he introduced the bill after getting calls from South Carolina alumni whose kids had been rejected. "They're not allowed to go, even if they had a very solid academic portfolio."

This debate isn't that different from the one about racial quotas at state universities: Shouldn't student bodies represent (proportionately, in the case of racial categories) the people who pay the bills? Is a state-funded education a transfer entitlement--between taxpayers and state residents of college age--or is it a public good--a way of raising the human capital of the state and spurring economic growth to benefit everyone? Over the long run, is it politically feasible to fund necessarily elitist institutions of academic and research excellence through taxes?

If a state university system is supposed to be a public good, it should, at least at its flagship, try harder to attract and retain high achievers than to placate every mediocre high school grad. The most promising students don't want, or need, a repeat of high school, and neither do their professors. While I'm skeptical of claims to giant spillovers from state-funded institutions, my natural sympathies lie with the folks trying against all odds to raise the quality of "the other" USC (a task that was much more easily accomplished at the real, private USC, partly because it has fierce academic competition from state-funded rivals).

"We're trying to import intellectual capital," says Dennis Pruitt, vice president for student affairs at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. The state faces flat growth in high school graduates over the next decade.

With appropriations steadily decreasing in recent years and making up about 23% of the university's operating budget, he also takes a swipe at lawmakers: "If our state legislators and others would like us to serve the citizens of South Carolina, then fund us adequately."

In fact, the citizens of South Carolina, in my admittedly jaded experience, get exactly the intellectual capital they want--which is to say, a continuing outflow. Maybe South Carolina policy makers should try to get North Carolina and Georgia to stop taking out-of-state students at state universities.

On the public good/industrial question, Austan Goolsbee's most recent NYT Economic Scene column (free PDF) suggests reasons for pessimism.

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