Vouchers for higher education

Gov. Pawlenty’s State of the State address included a novel idea worth investigation.

It’s always refreshing when State of the State addresses go beyond the usual rhetorical flourishes to propose innovative policy reforms. In this respect, Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s address Tuesday in Rochester, Minn., did not disappoint.

Striving to be bold, Pawlenty introduced a proposal to revamp the way the state funds higher education by giving more money directly to students. But before the Legislature rushes headlong into the kind of voucher system recently adopted in Colorado, it should pause for a moment’s reflection.

Though short on details, the proposal would likely involve giving individual students fixed vouchers to cover a portion of their tuitions at any Minnesota college or university. Such a move would not necessarily mean an increase in public funding for tuition, but it is a significant departure from the current practice of giving the money directly to postsecondary institutions.

Vouchers have long been a controversial approach to funding K-12 schools, but applying the idea to higher education is relatively new. Colorado’s program was passed only last year, and no other state has passed similar reform.

In his address Tuesday, Pawlenty argued his proposal would make colleges more accountable and give students added flexibility in choosing a school that suits their needs. Those competitive pressures might indeed spur languishing colleges to compete more vigorously for students.

But it might also leave students to shoulder an even heavier tuition burden. Colorado’s voucher legislation gave public institutions the freedom to unilaterally increase tuition, prompting some to warn that students from lower income families might be priced out of a college education.

It’s also been noted that higher-education vouchers might add to a state’s expenses by significantly increasing attendance rates. Sending more Minnesotans to college is a fine idea, but Pawlenty and the Republican-dominated Legislature hardly have a reputation for adequately funding education.

There is also good reason to worry that a voucher system would shortchange the University by reducing its state funding. The University might not be a bastion of Republicanism like the city of Rochester, but it is a world-class institution with a reputation for academic and research excellence. Protecting that reputation, like providing students adequate tuition assistance, should not be forgotten when legislators consider voucher reform.