Friday, July 09, 2010

More College Enrollment Economic Geography

I previously discussed Edward Glaeser's ham-handed attempt to exploit brain drain anxiety to benefit Harvard University. I've also pointed out the nefarious intent of private colleges in Minnesota. Some readers may not appreciate the importance of attracting new students. An article in today's New York Times should lay bare the intent behind the rhetoric in Boston and Minnesota:

“This is the country-clubization of the American university,” said Richard Vedder, a professor at Ohio University who studies the economics of higher education. “A lot of it is for great athletic centers and spectacular student union buildings. In the zeal to get students, they are going after them on the basis of recreational amenities.”

On average, spending on instruction increased 22 percent over the decade at private research universities, about the same as tuition, but 36 percent for student services and 36 percent for institutional support, a category that includes general administration, legal services and public relations, the study said. ...

... “The funding models we’ve created in higher ed are not sustainable,” Ms. Wellman said. “We ran up spending in the ’90s and early 2000s to levels we can’t maintain, and this is true not only in the elite privates, but in many of the public institutions, too.”

Now, with private-college endowments battered and state legislatures slashing university budgets coast to coast, “policymakers as well as university presidents and boards must learn to be better stewards of tuition and taxpayer dollars,” she said.

As the war for enrollment intensifies, the money available for making your institution more attractive is diminishing. State funding for public universities has been under siege for quite some time. The brain drain red herring shows up in every case. Now we are seeing the same song and dance from private schools. Glaeser himself explains the divergent interests between the business of higher education and the quest for a public talent dividend:

Skills predict urban success. Across metropolitan areas, an extra 5 percentage points of the adult population with college degrees in 1970 has resulted in an 8 percent more population growth and a 4 percent more income growth. Yet the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Alicia Sasser found that 29.5 percent of New England’s college graduates left the region within a year of graduation, the highest out-migration rate in the country. That exodus reflects our schools’ aim of educating the world, but the state not retaining the graduates.

The missions of most colleges and universities do not align well with their host communities. We shouldn't try to bridge that gap surreptitiously and sounding the brain drain alarm. The legacy of the traditional town and gown divide is muddying the regional economic development picture.

Writing this post has changed my mind about the official film of the Rust Belt. I used to think it was "Slap Shot". Now, I have a stronger appreciation of why journalist Connie Schultz (Cleveland Plain Dealer) is such a fan of "Breaking Away". If you haven't seen the film, this piece might help you understand my point. Indiana University isn't in Bloomington to serve the "cutters". More funding for the school won't keep these kids from leaving, not that retaining them is such a good idea in the first place. College is still first and foremost a ticket out of town. Don't let Glaeser and others dupe you into to thinking otherwise.

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