In California, Should Your Tuition Depend on Your Career?

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As he approaches retirement at the end of the year, California State University System Chancellor Charles Reed is calling for big changes in public higher education in the state.

Writing in the LA Times, Reed offers four ideas. Three are predictable -- more emphasis on online learning, better partnerships with undeserved communities, and more accountability and measurement of higher ed's performance based on data.

The fourth idea Reed offers is provocative, and bigger than others. He argues for changing the way students pay for their education -- getting rid of tuition and fees and instead paying a certain cost for a degree that is linked to the expected salary of a degree holder.

Creating a career-based funding model. Scrap the tuition/fees model for needs-based financial aid and consider a system that charges a fixed cost for a degree. For example, it might cost $25,000 to become a teacher and $40,000 to become an engineer. The money would go to the institution to cover the costs of the degree. When students graduate and get jobs, they pay back the money through income taxes. A teacher would have a smaller payback, for example, than an engineer, who presumably would earn a higher salary. Those who stay in the chosen career in the state for a fixed number of years would pay less.

That proposal is vague in a ton of places, and raises all kinds of questions, both practical and philosophical, about how it would work in practice. Wouldn't this effectively be a way of putting more costs, and debt on the current generation, as today's older generations continue to reduce support for education? What about the serendipity and discovery of studying at university and finding out you're not interested in what you thought you were interested in? How does this work in a world in which fields are interdisciplinary and careers change so frequently?

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And how can you anticipate professional salaries? How would you account for someone studying to be a doctor -- who would still have to do graduate study for an MD? How do you account for the wide range of salaries within fields? A computer programmer who goes to work in a high school computer lab is going to make much less than the one who goes to work at Google.

Even with all those objections and questions, Reed offers an idea worth debating. If only because California desperately needs to think about what it wants from higher education, and how it proposes to pay for it. Sadly, after 14 years in office, Reed departs CSU with those questions unanswered.

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