Last Tuesday, MIRS published a
lively news story on the opposing views of the
Lt. Governor’s Commission on Higher Education and Economic Growth and
Dr. Richard Vedder, distinguished professor of economics at Ohio University
and a research adviser to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. The commission
report in December encouraging the view that greater state government
funding for colleges and universities
would improve Michigan’s economic growth. Dr. Vedder, in contrast, recently
a book and a
Mackinac Center Viewpoint detailing empirical research that casts doubt on
the economic value of state spending on higher education.
Not surprisingly, state officials were less than
enthusiastic about Dr. Vedder’s findings. Much of their response in the MIRS
article involved changing the subject. It somehow made sense to the governor’s office, for instance, to attempt a lame joke about Ohio.
Still, the comments of a spokesman for the
Presidents Council of the State Universities of Michigan were disconcertingly unprofessional. We sent a rejoinder to MIRS the same day.
A slightly expanded version of that note appears below.
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy responds to the remarks of university lobbyists and
state officials regarding the effect of higher state education funding:
It would be misleading to attribute the obvious benefits of
higher education to funding from state government, as some state officials
seemed to in yesterday’s MIRS article. State money can fail to lead to more
affordable schools because there is often a disconnect between universities’
decisions and students’ needs — a point cogently argued in "Going Broke by
Degree," a book recently published by Dr. Richard Vedder, distinguished
professor of economics at Ohio University and a research adviser to the Mackinac
"The basic problem," Dr. Vedder writes, "is that
universities are ... subject to only muted competitive forces, and lacking
market-imposed discipline to economize and innovate. University presidents,
deans, maintenance supervisors, department chairs, and other administrators do
not benefit from reducing costs. With third parties such as government and
private donors footing much of the cost, there is little fear that higher prices
will trigger a consumer backlash."
This ability to raise prices without a corresponding
increase in value to students may be one reason why the extensive empirical data
Dr. Vedder reviewed did not demonstrate a positive correlation between economic
growth and state spending on universities. Indeed, the correlation, where it
existed, was negative, suggesting that some of the money the state spent could
have been put to more economically productive uses. This possibility should give
honest observers pause, especially in light of Dr. Vedder’s finding that average
college tuition increased by 296 percent between 1982 and 2003, compared to
increases of 195 percent for health care and 85 percent for housing. The
potential for misallocating taxpayers’ money is high.
Regardless of Dr. Vedder’s results, it was disturbing to
see a spokesman for the Presidents Council of the State Universities of Michigan
accuse Dr. Vedder of intellectual impropriety with no apparent resort to
evidence. Professor Vedder is a respected scholar whose work is regularly
subject to peer review and the vigorous give-and-take of academic debate. His
findings may be inconvenient for the state university presidents’ campaign to
increase taxpayer spending on state education, but he would be remiss to
withhold his research from public discourse on an important issue of state
policy, and he would hardly serve the university’s higher mission of open-minded
intellectual inquiry if he investigated only politically safe topics.
We would have hoped that the presidents of Michigan’s state
universities would support and welcome lively academic discussion of this issue, even if it didn’t increase their budgets. Their spokesman’s willingness to besmirch a respected researcher apparently because they disagree with him has troubling implications for the academic freedom of scholars at state universities.
In fact, one of the least recognized side effects of state
funding of universities and colleges is the political pressure the schools
subsequently receive to compromise their research, admissions and employment
agendas. This pressure is not limited to the flashpoints in America’s culture
wars, but includes more distinctly academic topics, such as teacher preparation
State financing of higher education is a topic over which
intelligent people can disagree. We look forward to continuing the discussion in
that vein, and we commend MIRS for providing a prime forum for the debate.
Christopher F. Bachelder is communications director for the
Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute
headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is
hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.