Monday, July 04, 2005

The government never closes anything 

Two disparate thoughts that I'd like to join this morning. Reader jw sends an article in the STrib on the possible futures of the UM-Crookston campus. A consulting firm has come in to study what to do with the 1200 student campus, suffering from lower applications and a very low six-year graduation rate.
� Transforming the campus into an institute that eventually would emphasize education for college juniors and seniors and specialize in issues of rural vitality. The campus would act as a magnet for scholars and people of all ages who want continuing education on issues that face the northern plains. It would increasingly rely on funding from summer programs, research, partnerships with business and continuing education rather than tuition and state appropriations.

� Making the campus a "broker" for higher education by helping students plan education programs that suit their interests and free them from individual campuses. Under such a program, students who plan their program through Crookston might spend their freshman year at Bemidji State University, head next to Crookston, go the Concordia College in Moorhead and then finish their degree at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Crookston would be paid through agreements with other campuses and would look for the best service, education and price it could find for students.

� Becoming a specialized training ground for government agencies focused on agriculture, natural resources and environmental protection. Crookston would become a direct supplier of employees for those agencies. The campus also would offer workshops and conferences aimed at professional staff of those agencies.
Each of these has problems attached. How big a market is there for programs that "emphasize rural vitality"? I suppose there might be some, but not enough to turn around a whole campus. It sounds like nothing more than a big department that does the rural counterpart of an urban studies program. The second idea would put UMC in competition with the area community and technical colleges. It would do nothing for the institution's prestige. And the community colleges are in league with the state universities like Bemidji, Moorhead or St. Cloud. The last idea creates a professional school for government bureaucrats. I doubt that does much for alumni, though the school is likely not to have many and those that do probably don't care too much.

As you read the article though, the one question you keep coming back to is, why is this place even open? Who's great idea was it to create a campus out in northwestern Minnesota? Part of it is certainly political -- there are representatives out there that become swing votes for bills passed by Metrocrat legislators versus suburban Republican legislators. The cost per student out in any of these smaller institutions will be higher. Does MnSCU really need 32 institutions in 46 places? Probably not, but each of them is somebody's baby.

Craig Westover, in critiquing a Nick Coleman column on the abortive opening of Veritas Academy, makes the same point in a different context.
The market said there is no demand for this type of education in this area at this time. If Veritas Academy were a public school program would likely have been pushed through anyway, huge amounts of money expended while it functioned ineffectively on its way to an expensive demise. Veritas died rather cheaply.
Just as I think Crookston is today, a government institution hastily conceived, ill-planned and not in search of either a new mission or closing. The difference between the Veritases of the world and the Crookstons is that someone has to take a risk in a profit-and-loss system in the former case, while the losses in the latter are passed back to taxpayers. Without the threat of losses, as Craig points out, is that misallocated money in private or charter schools diminishes education just as much as it misallocated money in a public system. But only in the former case is the harm done by misallocated visited upon those doing the harm.