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PSN on December 14, 2006 - 10:45am
Commission members in Wisconsin are floating an idea that is almost groundbreaking in its simplicity: a free college education for the state's students in exchange for a commitment to remain in state for a set period of time. If the student ends up reneging on the deal, they pay the cost of their education.
In most of the world, the fact that a free higher education is groundbreaking would seem almost laughable, but in the United States this kind of deal seems well-suited to both students fed up with double-digit tuition increases and states fed up with subsidizing educations only to watch students leave -- sometimes for financial reasons tied to student debt.
During this decade, as many as 2 million Americans will opt-out of higher education due to fear of student debt. Finding innovative ways to address both the reality and the perception of out-of-control education costs is a critical challenge for state policymakers.
The architects of the Wisconsin plan cite a similar policy in Ireland as the basis for both their idea and their optimism. Free higher education, they say, jump-started Ireland's economy by providing a critical mix of several elements:
- A captive, predictable educated work force that could be used to sell the state
- A larger tax base to make the plan pay for itself over time
- A greater density of highly educated individuals, which has served as a critical piece in developing the "new economy."
Critics contend that the results are not guaranteed and that the plan is pricy. But both the Counties Association and students are raving about the proposal -- including one student who admittedly currently plans to leave Wisconsin but says she would stay if it meant a free education.
A ballot measure is moving in Maine that has a similar goal. Opportunity Maine would provide tax credits to cover the full expense of paying off student loans for those who choose to take them out. While the same in principle, Opportunity Maine is not framed quite the same as the Wisconsin proposal, which may explain why media coverage fails to describe it as either "groundbreaking" or "extreme."
The Brookings Institution proposed a third way to structure such a program in order to address the twin problems of college affordability and states losing their "investments" through post-graduation migration: Decrease the cost of education for all students through state-funded loans that are forgiven wholly or partially for students who remain in state. This solution extends the program to out-of-state students interested in moving to a state.
The bottom line, though, as backers of all of these proposals understand, is that the cost of education has skyrocketed. Piecemeal reforms are no longer a solution. And there is a way to combine higher education affordability with graduate retention in a way that benefits students and the local economy.