Far from saving our children from lifetimes of debt, those on the neoliberal Left and the conservative Right advocating for either "freeing" state universities from the limitations of state funding in pursuit of market models, or diminishing state spending in a time of austerity, are accomplishing the same goal: driving up the costs of college attendance and reducing the overall educational attainment of our state's workers.
Forty years ago our grandparents elected officials who invested $14 per $1000 of personal income in higher education. Today, we elect jokers who put in just $5. What happened?
|Figure courtesy of Tom Mortenson, Postsecondary Education Opportunity|
Where is that money going instead? One simple word answers the question: corrections. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, we fought a War on Drugs, and drugs won-- but heck, we are still throwing our money at the problem. Legacy spending, you might call it. Over the last 10 years, spending on corrections went up 9%, while spending on k12 dropped by 6% and spending on higher education dropped 20%. Right, because clearly the goal of Wisconsin taxpayers is not to help educate our children, but rather to lock 'em up and shut 'em up.
For those who manage to avoid prison and get into college, instead of investing in their future, Wisconsin taxpayers seem to want their families to foot the bill. How's that working for us? Well, enrollment in our public institutions is lagging behind those in other states. We have experienced far slower growth in fall enrollment as measured over both 5-year and 10-year periods, compared to the national average (see Table 6 here). Perhaps most startling is how little enrollment in our 2-year colleges has changed-- there was practically no change at all in enrollment there over the last 5 years (0.6%) while the national average was 16.7%! Perhaps not coincidentally, during that time, tuition and fees at the 2-years (already higher than the national average 5 years ago) rose by 20%.
I have to admit being persistently perplexed at how other parents throughout Wisconsin can sit idly by while we pour money intended for our kids into pits of despair like the state's correctional facilities. It is far more cost-effective to educate rather than incarcerate. It's time to make our policymakers do right by the limited dollars we have. Let's re-instate a real early release plan, and rollback the ridiculous "truth in sentencing" guidelines that lengthened parole time, greatly increasing the likelihood of being returned to prison. As UW-Madison expert Walter Dickey notes, there are numerous hidden costs to incarceration, and as state we simply can't afford to be in the corrections business.
The best solution is to treat education as the crime-fighting technique it really is. Providing young people with truly viable opportunities later in life gives them something to really aim for, helping keep them off the streets and on the job. A recent UW-Madison graduate, economist Ben Cowan, finds that a $1,000 reduction in tuition and fees at two-year colleges is associated with a 26% decline in the number of sexual partners an adolescent has, and a 23% decline in number of days in the past month he used marijuana. Policies that support affordable higher education may simultaneously support reductions in the costs of incarceration, in a virtuous cycle that is win-win for all.
This is pure common sense and we all know it. It's simply time we demand that our "leaders" catch up.