Privatizing College

The Los Angeles Times has an interesting piece today about the continuing funding troubles at the University of California. Earlier this week the school’s president, Mark Yudof, went to the state legislature to try and convince the body that his school needed more money from the state. From the LA Times article:

The state university, he told them, is a statewide boon, adding: “We do not want to partially privatize it through raising fees.”

“Privatization” is a crowd-pleasing nostrum for public officials seeking to shed the budgetary cost of programs and services that they nevertheless know to be a public responsibility. It has a cheap but bright surface allure, like a fresh coat of whitewash.

The idea, among critics of UC as well as those of other public universities, is that the cut-rate tuition of these systems has long been too much of a bargain for their direct beneficiaries (the students) and too expensive for the state’s taxpayers. So why not cut the discount?

That’s the thing with privatization. It used to be a really popular policy idea that both Democrats and Republicans supported as a way to improve government efficiency.

While there may be some wastefulness in the University of California system, it is not clear that private schools actually operate more efficiently than public colleges; they may just be more expensive. And the University of California already collects half the amount of money from the state it received in 1990. This funding reduction resulted in no noted improvement in school efficiency.

The model for privatizing the public college is the University of Michigan, which started admitting and educating more high paying out-of-state students in the 1970s. Some 35 percent of U Michigan undergraduates now come from out-of-state.

Michigan is not California. In part because Michigan’s economic decline, the state has a dwindling amount of college-age students. So U Michigan could attract out-of-state students without hurting the state.

But California has more young people than ever before, kids not exactly clamoring for more cost cutting in the state university system.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer