5.2.08

STILL RUNNING A POLISH POST OFFICE. Years ago, a purchaser of technical manuals from Wayne State University's computing center had to deposit the money at the bursar's office, obtain a receipt, take the receipt to the computing center, and take possession of the manual. Anyone who has made a transaction in a Communist country (including China's Friendship Stores) knows the drill. I had visions of babushkas in the back room calculating with abacuses and making entries with a scratchy fountain pen in ledgers that had to be stitched together with leather straps. Perhaps they're still at it.

Wayne State University officials have broken the trust between themselves and students who -- as one junior said -- have been ripped off for $5.3 million.

That's the money students paid in contingency fees ahead of anticipated cuts in state funding. The cuts never happened. But the Detroit-based university decided to keep the bonanza instead of returning it to students.

The move is unquestionably wrongheaded for an urban university in the one of the poorest cities in the country. A college education is a ticket to the middle class, and Wayne State should not burden students by, in effect, keeping money earmarked as contingency.

Last year, Wayne State University set the extra tax at a pricey $13 per credit hour above normal rates. For an undergraduate taking 15 credits last year, the fee totaled $195 on top of a 12.8 percent tuition hike.

University officials plead incompetence.
The Wayne State Board of Governors took the low road. Board Chairman Eugene Driker said it would be an administrative "nightmare" to return the money to students. Well, Ferris State managed refund checks without dreadful dreams, suggesting it operates more efficiently than Wayne State.
I'm envisioning babushkas leafing through ledgers.

The policy implications the columnist draws are less persuasive.

Overall, Michigan colleges were designed to serve the Michigan public. But the state's big institutions abandon the role when they levy huge annual tuition hikes instead of managing costs and increasing productivity.

Some also pad revenue by taking in a large number of out-of-state students at higher tuition rates. The tactic crowds out Michigan applicants. And it runs against efforts to give state residents a leg up in adapting to a changing economy.

One could reduce costs and increase productivity by ending the fantasy that a credential from a less-than-selective university functions as a "ticket" to anything. Admittedly, that would do to excess capacity in access-assessment-remediation-retention what Nucor did to excess capacity in steel and Toyota did to excess capacity in automobiles. But there still are automobile factories in Michigan, and it probably doesn't bother the folks at the Detroit News when those car companies crowd out Michigan car-buyers by selling their product in California or, horrible dictu, Ohio. Is a current-account surplus in higher education different?

Perhaps Michigan will be driven, by default, to the efficient solution: fewer, but more selective, state colleges and universities, with more generous tuition subsidies for state residents. Call 'em merit scholarships if you want.

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