State funding for public higher education in Hawaii always seems to boil down to a philosophical question: What exactly is the role and mission of the University of Hawaii system and is the return worth supporting with tax payer dollars?

Funding for higher education wasn’t always an uphill battle. Institutions of higher learning go back at least two millennia. The first university in the current sense dates back a mere thousand years, but the models of education have evolved over the years.

 The Morrill Act of 1862 and the GI Bill of 1944 transformed America.

The Morrill Act set up land grant universities that taught “liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” The GI Bill put World War II veterans through college basically free of cost. It produced 14 Nobel Prize winners, three Supreme Court justices, three presidents, a dozen senators, two dozen Pulitzer Prize winners, and many others who have contributed back to society.

Unfortunately, America no longer sees a higher public good in paying for young people to become educated. Education has become a commodity. College has become a ticket to greater economic return, not to an education. Students now think they are buying a degree, not earning an education. They expect to go through college with the least possible pain and study.

At the slightest problem, Congress imposes new laws on universities and the corresponding federal agencies impose more guidelines. To enforce the federal guidelines, agencies called “accrediting institutions” have been spawned, basically shake-down mafias that tell universities that if they don’t get accreditation, “Washington” will cut off funding for their students. The accrediting agencies have to find higher and higher but still vague bars that universities must clear so the accreditors can justify their continuing existence.

Universities, pressed with more paperwork, hire more administrators. But administrators are like rabbits. They need a secretary, then they need an assistant vice-administrator who then needs an assistant, and so on. The more rules, the more administrators and the more job security. No worries if the rules don’t actually have anything to do with education. Economists have a name for this: it’s called “regulatory protectionism.”

Consider these university statistics: Nationally, between 1993 and 2007, while enrollment grew by 15 percent and faculty numbers grew by 18 percent, administrator numbers grew by 39 percent. While spending on students rose 39 percent during this period, administrative costs rose by 61 percent!

Here’s how it works today: Deans, vice chancellors and university presidents became peripatetic, only staying at universities for four or five years before moving on to the next. To get their next position, they have to create some great new initiative that they can trot out as evidence of their excellence. These academic transients have become a separate class, better paid than professors, even though they don’t teach or contribute directly to what their institutions actually do.

So what does all of this have to do with funding for high education? Academic money is not unlimited; how to pay for all this? For administrators, there were four ways to do this, take a pay cut: Ask the federal and state governments to foot the bill, raise tuition, or cut faculty salaries. Administrators won’t cut their own salaries. The second one isn’t working. As university education ceased to be a public good, state legislators decided students should pay their own way, so tuitions increased, eventually ending up beyond the means of middle class families. Greedy companies were happy to loan 18-year olds vast amounts of money, leaving them with crippling debts that they may never be able to repay. Student loan debt is now larger than credit card debt. Graduates saddled with such debt can’t buy cars and houses and other things that stimulate the economy, but they can keep paying for life. If they can’t get decent jobs, this vampire obligation sucks away most of their income, with no relief even through bankruptcy. Perhaps even worse, the need for a steady paycheck to repay loans kills the entrepreneurial spirit: play it safe, pay back your loan and forget your dreams.

With less state support and student tuition increases pushing the limits, the next attack was on faculty. Removing tenure proved too tough a fight at many institutions, and increasing teaching load and class size has its limits, so to cut costs, there were two approaches. One is to hire part-time lecturers who work at below minimum wage, so they have to teach at several institutions to make ends meet.

These part-time lecturers have no expectation of job security, much less tenure, or a pension. They don’t have time to interact with students, one of the highlights of undergraduate education. They don’t participate in department administration, such as evaluating programs and deciding what courses need to be taught. But no worries, another administrator can be hired to develop curricula. Finally such lecturers are dependent on good student evaluations for future employment so enlightened self-interest makes them easy graders. This ultimately impacts the quality of education provided to students.

Lately another solution to high faculty salaries has emerged: MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). The idea is to have a few of the best or most prestigious professors teach on-line courses that can be watched by innumerable numbers of students. The problem so far is that no one has figured out how to make money off this development.

So what’s the solution? Why not make higher education free — if the student can pass a serious entrance exam? Take all the money that states and the national government throw into education and give it directly to the students as vouchers for universities. These would not be blank checks but amounts per student or per credit that would cover reasonable education costs. Universities would be free to add bells and whistles and more administrators but students who chose to go to such higher cost schools would pay out of their own pockets. The feds already use such a system to reimburse colleges for the cost of federal research so it can be done.

If that is too dramatic, then there is the Oregon model: free tuition that students repay out of their future earnings, with some upper cap on the percent of income going to pay off the debt.

In the end, America has to decide if higher education is a public or private good. If it’s a private good, we can make efficiencies within the university and pass the costs of graduating less effective workers along to society. Or if it’s a public good, we make the investment just as we invest in the interstate highway system, defense or K-12 education. The G.I. Bill produced the greatest generation, maybe by going back to that past, the best is yet to come.

David Duffy is a professor in the Botany Department at the University of Hawaii Manoa. He has worked on the ecology of diseases including Lyme Disease, avian flu, and avian malaria in such places as Peru, Alaska, southern Africa, eastern Long Island, southern Africa and her in Hawaii.

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