Monday, December 11, 2006

An Economic "Big Bang" or Graduates on Parole?

A state commission charged with upgrading the UW two-year campuses has created a plan to transform the entire system by giving free tuition for UW students who promise to stay and work in Wisconsin for 10 years after graduating.

The idea is that by keeping graduates in Wisconsin, it will help spur economic growth in the state (if you have workers, business will come). And by driving economic growth, the plan would pay for itself (and then some, hopefully) through increased income tax revenue.

Taken separately, the two parts of the idea are very appealing. After all, who wouldn't support free tuition and economic growth?

But there are a couple of tricky aspects to this plan.

For starters, will the supposedly inevitable economic growth actually pay for the plan? If you simply have workers, will businesses come, or will we be hanging many of our students out to dry by limiting their employment options after graduation?

And answering these question requires pinpointing the exact nature of the alleged "brain drain" in Wisconsin, which, in turn, leads to other questions. It seems a good number of UW grads (like myself) leave the state initially after graduation, but then eventually return to settle down. Is this plan going to merely cut out that "in between" time, and subsequently leave the state with a work force that actually looks pretty similar to the one we have?

In other words, will this plan spur enough economic growth to cover the free tuition of those who stayed because of the offer and those who would've stuck around regardless?

Another tricky aspect of the proposal -- and the one that's likely to recieve less attention than the economic side of things -- is that the college experience isn't isolated from post-graduation plans. That is, students often shape their college experiences around the experiences they think they would like to have after graduation. And, likewise, the experiences students have after graduation are driven by those they chose to have while in college.

By altering one end of that spectrum, you inevitably impact the other.

And while an argument could be made that students can always opt to leave the state after graduation and simply pay off their tuition bill retroactively (in one imposing lump sum), the fact is that dangling free tuition in front of most students is going to have an impact on the decisions they make while in college.

Is that really where we want to head with our UW policies? Should public policy be aimed at giving UW students more complicated choices, or just more choices?

Mostly questions at this point, but important ones. And, if nothing else, the plan is useful because it gets us thinking and talking about them.

UPDATE: Although this reform proposal wasn't likely to go anywhere, anyway, Dave Diamond notes how it's as good as dead now that Speaker-elect Mike Huebsch has named Rep. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) to head the Assembly's Colleges and Universities committee.

As Dave writes: "So ignore any radical ideas about UW reform. There's going to be nothing but gridlock and press releases."

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