The Perils of Group-Think

Tuesday, September 15, 2009
With the President imploring more Americans to go to college and not give up on themselves or their nation, it's understandable that many policymakers want to join in and do their part. Making college more affordable is a very good place to start.

And free tuition-- heck, free anything--sounds great, especially in a recession. Free tuition provided without changes to the state's operating budget or cuts to any other programs, or by digging a deeper deficit, sounds even better. That's probably why Michigan state representative Fred Durhal Jr. thinks he's got a good thing going, proposing to use a new lottery and casino profits to provide free tuition to more than 160,000 students. It's a win-win right? Says Durhal, "You can feel a little better about losing money to the house if you know it's going to go to children."

Except that the money you are losing is being taken from your own children, and given to someone else's. And, since only students who've lived in Michigan continuously for 5 years and earned a 2.5 GPA or better are eligible, the person losing the money is far more likely to be relatively poor, while the kids getting the money are likely to be relatively rich. Let's think-- who moves around a lot and is far less likely to meet that GPA requirement...? Hmmm...

A basic tenet of good social policy-making is targeting. If you want to help students who right now can't afford college, then you need to set the requirements such that they are the (only) ones who are eligible. Not doing so means spreading the wealth among those who don't really need it, diluting the potential impact. And if you really want to help disadvantaged families then don't use a funding mechanism that draws the cash from the program right out of their pockets.

Michigan can look to many other states for better ideas, and for lessons on why this one is a poor one. Take a look at who has benefited from Georgia's lottery-funded HOPE scholarship, which also includes a GPA cutoff. According to expert Don Heller, over 90% of the expenditures have gone to students who would've attended college even without the financial assistance. As long as a scholarship is tied to a GPA cutoff, and family income is correlated with GPAs, then such programs won't effectively reach their intended audience. As long as poor folk dominate those playing the lotto and visiting the casinos, then that funding mechanism doesn't work either.

I'm as pleased as punch that people want to help more poor kids afford college. That's an idea worth glomming on to. But policy proposals require more than good ideas, they require carefully thought out details and a strong theory of action. This one just doesn't cut it.