Phi Beta Cons

Federal-State Partnership? Or Extortion?

In a post in these pages last week, I mentioned president Robert Duffett of small Eastern University making a pitch that Hillary Clinton’s “free” college tuition proposals be expanded to include private schools, not just public colleges and universities. Eastern, of course, is private and would benefit greatly from this enhancement to the Clinton program.

Now comes F. King Alexander, president of Louisiana State University, to opine in The Washington Post that the real cause of spiraling tuition is that states have cut back on their own subsidies to the public system, and the schools have had to hike tuition to remain solvent. He has an answer, though, and it’s fairly straightforward. King contends that we need a federal-state partnership that “leverages federal dollars to incentivize states to maintain a base level of funding for their public colleges and universities.” Pretty simple — if states do not cough up a specified level of funding, the federal dollars disappear, and presumably are allocated to more compliant states. Some would call this extortion. In fact, so would I.

The arguments by King at LSU, and Duffett at Eastern, struck me as odd in another way. In begging for more federal and state dollars, why don’t they at least pay lip service to the need for their institutions to do their part, by cutting costs? Businesses do this every day to remain competitive, but the concept doesn’t seem to have found much of a foothold in the academy.

But this is understandable if one considers that the funds are being requested from government bureaucracies, and politicians don’t have the words “cost cuts” in their operating manual, either. With few exceptions, the federal and state budget process is an exercise in deriving increased tax revenue to fund increasingly expensive government programs. State cuts to public higher education run counter to this general trend, and King’s immediate response is to fight back, to compel increased funding through the threat of withholding federal dollars.

Since government policy makers and bureaucrats seldom talk about true cost reductions (real decreases, not decreases in the rate of growth), why should the presidents of these schools even go there? Better to remain as long as possible in this parallel universe, where all that matters is revenue from the taxpayers. Eastern’s president looks for “new” federal dollars, LSU’s president wants to use existing federal dollars as a cudgel against state lawmakers who would dare to reduce funding.

Vic Brown had a thirty-year career in the chemical industry with FMC Corporation, where he held senior positions and worked internationally in sales, marketing, manufacturing, information technology and procurement.

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