Friday 5 July 2013

Pick the separating equilibrium

College degrees vary pretty greatly in expected post-tertiary earnings. Some provide a lot of ephemeral benefits, others provide higher earnings. I'm agnostic about what students should pick, though I expect that government funding should be linked to likely positive external benefits from any particular degree rather than to the degree recipient's expected earnings.

Oregon's proposed a solution that's not far from what New Zealand had a few decades ago: free tuition, but high marginal tax rates.
Passed unanimously by the Democrat-controlled state Senate Monday after it had already cleared the also Democrat-controlled House, the bill would create a program called "Pay Forward, Pay Back" by which students wouldn't pay a dime at the time of study at any public institution for higher education in Oregon. Instead, students who qualify as Oregon residents would sign a binding contract that would require they pay a percentage of their post-college income back to the state every year for up to 24 years.
Students have some flexibility in choice of state. It's a bit of a hassle to get yourself registered as a state resident, but it's not crazy hard. I was in-state in Virginia.

If the contract is really binding, I expect that Oregon's Fine Arts and Social Work departments will see a pretty strong increase in student numbers while those wanting a degree in Finance will start heading out of state. Differences in tuition across majors are pretty small compared to differences in lifetime earnings.

When New Zealand ran this policy, they also ran a pretty exclusive university entrance policy: a rather smaller fraction of high school graduates were eligible for university. It will be interesting to see how things play out in Oregon.

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