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Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017 09:39 am

Higher ed bargains

On my recent visit to the main campus of the University of Illinois, in Urbana-Champaign, the presence of Chinese, Korean and Indian students was marked. The university’s recruiting of the Asian student raises questions that after 150 years have never been resolved, and seldom even engaged. Which public is served by a great public university? 

At its founding, that public was the yeoman farmer and the petite bourgeoisie who could not afford to send kids to private colleges, those being costly, classics-oriented and, with few exceptions, religious. The public university offered an alternative in the form of affordable nonsectarian instruction in the useful arts, the better to prepare the state’s new industrial workforce. The student population was overwhelmingly Illinoisan; the University of Illinois could have been named the University for Illinois.

The new U of I offends our chauvinists, but not our economists. For a time, the Chinese and Indians who trained here tended to stay here, because our economy was advanced enough to offer them opportunities to put into practice what they had learned that they didn’t have at home. That is less and less true. Lots of those students now return to a maturing and prosperous China and Korea and (to a lesser extent) India. 

But then, our best Illinois kids are doing the same thing. We are exporting trained talent, and just as a lot of California water goes east with every cantaloupe exported to Illinois, so do lots of tax dollars get shipped out of state when college graduates emigrate. 

Solutions have been proposed, some of which I explored in "Positive spillovers" in 2013 and "Pay as you leave" in 2015. But if you want Illinois college money to stay in Illinois, make Illinois a state in which well-educated young people feel they have a future. 
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