What About School Choice for Higher Education?

Making college more attainable for low-income families

In 2011, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels signed the state’s first school voucher program into law, to make high-quality private school education accessible to low-income students. Higher education, however, has largely been ignored.

“Providing poor and minority families the same choice of schools that their wealthier neighbors enjoy is the purest example of social justice in our society today,” Daniels said a decade after the Choice Scholarship Program was established. “The baseless and plainly self-interested arguments made against this program by the usual special interests only underscore its validity.” 

Certainly many of the same benefits would apply if this program were expanded to some degree at the university level.

Daniels, for his part, went on to lead Purdue University during their decade-long “price freeze,” which was intended to make a “statement” that they were “serious about affordability.” 

However, many of the same hurdles that have kept low-income and marginalized groups from achieving parity in primary and secondary education have also kept them from achieving parity in higher education. Many are stuck considering underfunded, understaffed community colleges and open enrollment schools.

As Daniels knew well, one part of the solution was ensuring education was affordable and never detached from the needs of the workforce, providing students with high-quality resources and opportunities from partnerships with the broader community.

As with traditional school choice programs, providing in-state tuition vouchers for low-income, low-wealth students to attend private, non-profit universities would also address part of the issue. Subsidizing students, rather than universities, would give them the opportunity to attend a school that is a better fit for them at a lower cost. This is especially important for students who don’t have the benefit of family assistance. 

Private schools, for one, tend to have smaller class sizes with better access to instructors, with around 10-15 students per class, compared to public universities, which tend to have closer to 25-35 students per class. Graduates of private, non-profit universities also tend to have a higher lifetime earnings than those from public universities. 

According to the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute, small student-to-faculty ratios at HBCUs “facilitate learning” and “provide a more active support system.” Many students choose these schools for such reasons, in addition to having more faculty and peers that identify with their personal experiences.

State governments could learn from these universities by reducing the barrier of tuition, which would expand the ability of low-income students to choose a university that may provide them with better and more personalized support throughout their educational journey, rather than just during admissions. 

The whole point of subsidizing public universities to provide in-state tuition is to retain talent that is likely to live, work, and pay taxes in the state, as state school graduates typically end up living within 50 miles of their alma mater. This is likely to remain the same whether in-state students attend public, private, or even trade schools.

If anything, such a program would incentivize students to attend college in-state and make them more likely to become successful, taxpaying adults. The return on the investment would be worthwhile, and would create more incentives for public universities to innovate and lower cost in a more competitive market.

Of course, such a plan would require significant levels of accountability and financial transparency among both public and private institutions of higher education. Nevertheless, intuitive legislators would certainly be capable of piecing together a sustainable and equitable program that could deliver positive, long-term results for the students that need it most.

Jacob Stewart

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chalkboard Review team.

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