Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Smarter Talent Investment

The problem with policies designed to plug brain drain is that they don't make sense. For example, investing in higher education won't keep talent from leaving. Incoherent Florida:

How to cut Bright Futures is one of many issues House and Senate negotiators are expected to wrangle over in the coming days as they begin trying to resolve budgetary differences. Both chambers have proposed spending cuts in nearly every part of the budget to avoid a potential $3.75 billion revenue shortfall.

The Bright Futures scholarship program, funded by Lottery proceeds, was launched in 1997 to stem a "brain drain" of top Florida students to out-of-state colleges. Students could qualify for grants paying 100 percent or 75 percent of tuition and fees at in-state public and private schools depending largely on how well they scored on entrance exams.

The program is in peril because supporters made the wrong promise. Increasing the number of adults with college degrees will exacerbate outmigration. (e.g. Pittsburgh 1982) Smart people have itchy feet. Florida tax dollars are fueling brain drain. Ergo, cutting Bright Futures would be a good idea. Besides, why would retirees care about funding higher education?

Many states are faced with a similar conundrum. The price tag of a policy was tied to talent retention, an emotional issue for voters. Now would be a good time to engage in an honest cost-benefit analysis. What did Bright Futures accomplish?

Ideally, the money allowed people who normally couldn't afford college to go and get a degree. Instead, Florida targeted high school graduates who were going to find a way to pay. Perhaps they wouldn't stay in Florida. But they would attend some institution. I doubt Bright Futures made much of difference in developing people.

Instead of starving the scholarship, I recommend retooling it. Look at expenditures tied to low income and think about how the program might help alleviate some of those costs. Consider talent shortages. Tie the subsidy to degree tracks that produce badly needed employees. Regardless, the gutting of funding for higher education is dangerously myopic. Florida is addressing a dire situation by making it worse.

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