Why Can’t They Fix Higher Education?

Many state governors, particularly those from the Republican party, have been particularly interested in making serious efforts to reform public higher education. The primary problem, which they’re understandably very eager to correct, is the cost of college. But the reform efforts aren’t going too well.

According to an article by Eric Kelderman in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania is the latest in a string of first-term Republican governors to try his hand at a major higher-education reform. If the examples of his peers are any indication, the chances of success are mixed, at best.

Governor Corbett has appointed a committee to advise him on how colleges should be financed and how they could better serve the needs of Pennsylvania’s employers. In addition to insisting that tuition has risen too fast, the governor has questioned whether the state’s four-year colleges are doing enough to improve Pennsylvania’s economy. He argues that Pennsylvania needs to produce more skilled-trade workers, like carpenters, electricians, and plumbers, and fewer schoolteachers.

The trouble is that, like fellow Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, Nevada, and Florida, Corbett is discovering that constituents and legislators don’t like the governor’s reform ideas. Kelderman again:

But not everyone agrees about either the nature of the problems or the governor’s solutions. His critics say the rise in tuition is caused by cuts in state money. And, they add, he is selling Pennsylvania’s economy and its citizens short—a 2010 study on the future work-force needs of the 50 states concluded that Pennsylvania will need many more workers with baccalaureate and graduate degrees than with associate degrees or with nondegree training after high school.

Just because people agree something should change doesn’t mean they agree on the changes. Tuition certainly is rising too fast for the students of Pennsylvania to afford. But most people agree that the reason college costs go up is because state support goes down.

Corbett might be right that Pennsylvania needs more skilled-trade workers, but virtually no economists argue that America is really producing too many bachelor’s degree holders. We may not need dramatically more schoolteachers, but we need more professionally-trained workers.

The most fundamental problem here may be that, while the governor’s statements about higher education might be controversial, and not entirely accurate, he’s concerned with the cost of college for a very practical reason; he has budget problems. The economic downturn means that Pennsylvania, like many other states, simply doesn’t have enough revenue coming in to meet all of its needs.

Corbett has to cut costs, or raise taxes, in order keep the state solvent. Higher education is often a tempting place for governors to cut; unlike other obligations, support for higher education is not required by state constitutions.

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