Published on National Review Online
‘Tis the season. Millions of starry-eyed teenagers from all over the country are beginning the four-year (hopefully), alcohol-and-ramen-infused odyssey of grasping that the American diploma ain’t that remarkable. On that uplifting note, let’s chat for a couple of minutes about the Ivory Tower.
So I enjoy dropping into local Democratic meetings. (Frankly, I’m surprised more conservative activists don’t do the same, if not for the purpose of research then at least for the free kabuki entertainment.) One fascinating tidbit I’ve discovered: Even in this throat-slashing, partisan epoch, there’s something that unites everyone, from the most hardcore progressive to the staunchest libertarian. And what’s that? The conviction that state taxpayers, by virtue of being state taxpayers — and that the children of state taxpayers, by virtue of being the children of state taxpayers — are entitled to some degree of admissions edge over out-of-state applicants at their institutions of higher learning. Indeed, the blood of lefties and righties alike is boiled by public colleges and universities taking more and more out-of-state students to — allegedly — cover escalating administrative costs. (Out-of-state students are, after all, usually charged a higher tuition rate than in-state students).
That there is robust consensus about such a specific issue among otherwise diametrically opposed ideologues ought to raise a red flag for the politically cognizant. Why? Because it suggests that one team has caved on its principles. In this instance, I regret to report, it’s the Right.
Make no mistake about it, complaining that public colleges and universities are “giving away too many” spots to out-of-state students — or, phrased differently, “reserving too few” spots for in-state students — is tantamount to defending affirmative action. Of course, for most left-wingers, this is neither atypical nor hypocritical, for they’ve long been in the business of backing quotas that, too frequently, sacrifice academic excellence at the holy altar of equality of outcome.
Yet for right-wingers who claim to cherish merit and the free market, this sort of behavior is undoubtedly hypocritical and atypical. Conservatives recognize — or are supposed to recognize — that offering any type of advantage to a less-qualified applicant, regardless of whether that advantage is grounded in race, ethnicity, gender, or geography, is not only to violate the conservative ethos but also to harm society writ large.
Somewhere along the line, a lot of us either forgot or started to misunderstand two objectives of institutions of higher learning. The first is to deliver the very best education possible. That objective, it should go without saying, can be attained only when colleges and universities are allowed to admit, without constraint, the sharpest people out there. (Naturally, the identical logic concerns talent acquisition with private enterprise. For how else can companies aspire to offer the finest goods and services?) Henceforth, let’s use Michigan, my home state, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, to illustrate a few points.
The stronghold of maize and blue is a top-notch university. U.S. News and World Report ranked it the fourth-best public school in the country this year. That number is especially amazing given the relatively small fund from which it draws much of its student body. A notable percentage of each undergraduate class comes from just a handful of Michigan high schools. (The typical University of Michigan undergraduate class is a touch north of 50 percent in-state.) I’m prepared to bet that, every year, hundreds, if not thousands, of in-state applicants — let alone in-state “legacy” applicants — are accepted over more-qualified out-of-state applicants.
Here’s the point. If even one less-qualified Michigander is being awarded a spot over a more-qualified non-Michigander, then the free market is operating at less than maximum capacity and the University of Michigan is punching below its utmost intellectual weight. It’s irrefutable that this tradeoff has taken place and continues to take place.
But life is more than about rigid adherence to heady political precepts; it’s also, more often than not, about immediate self-interest. (Yes, conservatives tolerate human nature as it exists in reality!) So really, why should the average taxpayer be willing to partially sponsor the education of some random kid from the other side of the country? In other words, why should you ultimately care that in-state applicants are pilfering places from out-of-state applicants? The answer is simple, though admittedly not easy to process in this age of instant gratification.
The enormous, multifaceted pool of talent spread across 49 states represents the fiftieth state’s single greatest prospect for economic growth. Michiganders, particularly so, ought to take this notion seriously. It’s no secret that their state has long suffered from “brain drain.” Not too long ago, the Detroit Regional Chamber reported that nearly 40 percent of recent graduates from Michigan’s public universities had said adios to the Great Lakes State, carrying their cerebral ammunition, purchasing power, and tax money with them.
This leads to the other abandoned, and unquestionably more vital, objective of institutions of higher learning. The second objective is not to narrowly supply affordable access to quality education. It’s to broadly improve society, to bolster the standard of living of the places we reside in. Public colleges and universities should be scholastic destinations in addition to vehicles, vehicles that directly transform our communities into better places to work, play, and raise families.
Accordingly, all states should strive to ensure that their public colleges and universities are landing the brightest minds seeking admission, regardless of where those minds hail from. If you’re a Detroiter, you should be chomping at the bit to have that tech whiz from North Dakota who just graduated from the University of Michigan stick around, launch a business, employ others, and expand the tax base. On a positive note, it was found in 2013 that alumni from Michigan’s three largest universities — the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University — were starting businesses at twice the national average. But there’s still room for improvement. Only about half of the businesses were in Michigan.
Critically, while formal and informal restrictions on out-of-state entry recede, state legislatures must be tasked with devising effective economic incentives to retain graduating talent before it slips away, perhaps forever. Further, elected officials must be able to persuade their constituents of the macro net benefits of granting a greater proportion of spots to high-performing out-of-state students. Finally, citizens must hold their public institutions of higher learning accountable for spending, pressuring them to address the waste responsible for mounting administrative costs.
I’m aware that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution because every state is different. California and New York, for example, benefit from large populations, diverse economies, and lots of premiere public colleges and universities. So the rapidity with which public colleges and universities ratchet down the number of reserved in-state spots has to be a response to context rather than a product of artificial targets. (Right now, the ratio of in-state to out-of-state students is based somewhat on the aim of procuring enough money to keep the lights on, which is obviously not an ideal determinant.)
If anything, taxpayers ought to view the out-of-state tuition rate as the “real cost” required for an institution to educate one student, and the in-state tuition rate as the subsidized amount from which they and their children benefit owing to regular fiscal transfers, or “investments.” (For this academic year at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, tuition and fees will cost an in-state student $13,977, while they’ll cost an out-of-state student $41,811.) To demand enhanced access in admissions on top of often substantially reduced tuition rates is, at best, slightly greedy and, at worst, morally unjust.
The bottom line is that if conservatives genuinely prize achievement, they have to take steps toward cultivating merit and aptitude, not obstructing them.