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Rethinking higher education

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen

November 13, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

Parents are understandably concerned about rising college costs. Iowa's non-resident tuition is approaching $20,000 -- twice that of five years ago.

Legislators focus on their constituents' share of the costs: taxes.

Yet everyone wants economic growth and good jobs for Iowans. And education, and universities' research, is key.

Definitions of basic, publicly funded education change. Two hundred years ago a fourth grade education could get you a job in agriculture or a trade. With industrialization, six or eight years became necessary. For 50 years it's been "K-12."

But middle-class union jobs for high school graduates have been lost to automation and globalization. A half-century later even four years of college aren't enough.

The challenge is finding the fairest, politically feasible way to fund college. The possible sources are parents -- and taxpayers at the local, state and federal level.

Most taxpayers willingly support free K-12 education. They benefit, as parents and members of the local economy. They also might support a K-14 system, because community college graduates also come from, and often stay, locally.

By contrast, it's harder to justify why Iowans should help subsidize the education of students who come from, and will return to, Illinois. And yet, now that our nation's "state universities" have become in effect "national" institutions, "out-of-state tuition" sounds antiquated.

Clearly, everyone in our nation benefits from university graduates and academic research. But it's also true that college graduates generally, and Ph.D. equivalents in particular, derive a disproportionate personal benefit, as well.

This didn't hinder those drafting the mission of the University of California's system, where I first taught in Berkeley. The founders, when "state universities" were just that, wanted to provide tuition-free higher education for Californians. By my time it was no longer "free," but California universities' charges were a small fraction of state schools elsewhere.

The result? The research and graduates from California's higher education system are credited with creating -- were California a nation -- the fifth largest economy in the world.

Are you listening Iowa?

A former Republican national chairman, Harry W. Colmery, drafted a law for President Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 called the "GI Bill of Rights." It provided veterans' tuition, books and a living allowance. There was one year when veterans were 49 percent of all college students. The total cost over 10 years was $15 billion, a sum returned two to eight times over in income taxes alone.

Business writer Peter Drucker said it marked our change from an industrial to a knowledge society.

Taxes are just another form of currency. You can't cut "taxes" any more than you can cut cash, checks or credit cards. We buy stuff with taxes. What politicians cut are "programs." Let's force this change in rhetoric. Because when our investments of taxes provide returns many times over only a fool would invest less.

If we don't feel as committed to the economic benefits of higher education as prior generations, and we're concerned about personal benefits to graduates, here's an idea once kicking around Washington.

Eliminate "out-of-state" tuition differentials. Calculate all universities' teaching-related costs. Pay half of them from federal taxes -- representing the benefits received by all Americans equally. And the other half?

Give students options: (1) pay-as-you-go half of the full per-student costs of teaching, or (2) forgo those costs while a student, with subsequent lifetime payments as a flat rate surtax on adjusted gross income. Collected by the IRS, the rate would be set to maintain a national revolving fund to cover the other half of the costs.

Payback would be minimal and would fluctuate with income, unlike student loans. Those personally profiting the most pay the most. Those earning less pay less.

This, and comparable ideas, can advance the Regents' strategic planning, promote Iowa's economic growth, offer Iowa's graduates opportunities and resolve tuition shock.

A dream? Perhaps, but to paraphrase Robert Browning, "Our reach must exceed our grasp, or what's a Democratic governor, Legislature, U.S. House and Senate for?"
Nicholas Johnson teaches, but does not speak, for the University of Iowa, and maintains and