'Privatize' Public Colleges? Then We'd All Lose

JOHN V. BRAIN

November 23, 1991|By JOHN V. BRAIN

As an erstwhile exponent of privatization, I was intrigued by James Dorn's proposal for privatizing Maryland's system of higher education (Perspective, Nov. 10). In brief, he advocates making each student responsible for the full, unsubsidized cost of his own education, borrowing this substantial sum from an investment trust and repaying it out of his increased earnings as a college graduate.

Professor Dorn is right to point out the real costs of public education. Subsidies do distort market realities. But we don't expect welfare recipients to fund the welfare system, and we can't expect students to fund the public education system. Even upscale, privatized institutions like the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra can't make it on ticket income alone.

If the orchestra were to charge what its performances actually cost, it would play to a small audience of the very rich. Instead, the BSO balances its budgets by appealing to individual and corporate contributors and receives modest subsidies from government. This is of course what private colleges and universities do, but even so their tuition is way above what most students at public institutions can afford.

The central thesis of Professor Dorn's proposal is that ''higher education is primarily a private rather than a public good,'' and this assertion needs to be challenged.

The economic health of any region depends on a pool of well-educated college graduates who are recruited into business and industry, nonprofit organizations and government. Recently the Executive Advisory Board on Higher Education of Baltimore County held a conference, ''B.C. 2001: Meeting the Training Needs of Business and Industry,'' to discuss how the region's colleges and universities could help our regional economy meet the challenges of the 21st century.

One after another, senior executives told us that a good basic education as well as a strong work ethic are essential to their business success. A college education not only enables individual students to earn more; it enables all of us to earn more by sharing in the prosperity of the region. And as a region, we have to ensure that both public and private education are well supported.

What if professor Dorn's radical privatization were to be implemented in Maryland? Its first impact would be to deflect students to other states' subsidized institutions and so boost their economic development rather than ours. And if state institutions were privatized nationwide and their tuitions tripled, the impact would be to force most public school students to drop out or spread their college education over many years.

The history of government loans to college students is not such as to encourage private investors. The end result would be to limit education to those who can afford to attend private schools -- and doom our economy to permanent subordination to the Japanese and Europeans, whose public education systems are already superior.

Right now, medical students at Johns Hopkins and Harvard are going into debt to the tune of $100,000 and more, because lenders are willing to invest in the futures of doctors who earn more than that in a single year of practice.

But who knows what the typical college graduate of the future will earn? Many right now are unable to find jobs in today's depressed economy. Can we allow economic fluctuations to determine whether young people are to be educated?

Besides, if the Dorn proposal is workable, why stop at higher education? Why not make all education the responsibility of students and their parents instead of all taxpayers? Rather than burden us, why not defer the cost of education to the 21st century, when our children will be grown and able to pay for it themselves?

Professor Dorn's proposal is not a new idea but an ideological dinosaur, dating back to a period when government took little responsibility for the welfare of citizens. It suggests that each individual support only those programs that benefit him personally and makes self-interest the only motivation. It is a prescription for social disintegration.

To be fair, one should point out that privatization does have a role to play in public education. Private involvement is to be encouraged. Businesses and individuals can offer scholarships. Corporations can sponsor initiatives like the Lattanze Center at Loyola college.

Public institutions can attract grants and endowments like private institutions and offer remunerative services to business and industry. They can operate university presses and radio stations and research centers which support themselves. Some government agencies can indeed be run like businesses and they all need to be businesslike, efficient and user-friendly.

We don't want subsidized government agencies doing what entrepreneurs can do better. But public education is a cornerstone of American democracy and should not be sold off to the highest bidder.

I suggest that Professor Dorn ask his own students what they would do if their tuition were tripled next semester. And if he then tells them ''Go look for a sponsor,'' he'd better keep his head down.

John V. Brain is a free-lance writer.

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