Thursday, December 20, 2007

It won't work by itself...I "promise"

Here in West Virginia, high schoolers have a chance at a free college education though the PROMISE scholarship program. (It turns out that PROMISE is an acronym for Providing Real Opportunities for Maximizing In-state Student Excellence. We have a tough time getting the policies right...but if you need a seven-word acronym, West Virginia is your place.)

For some reason, the program seems to be getting quite a bit of attention as of late. Maybe it's the high school seniors deciding what to do next year or the fact that the first class to receive scholarships under this program are just getting their post-college feet wet. With all the to-do about program, it's worth giving a few bullet points as to why the PROMISE scholarship won't be the savior to the West Virginia economy that many believe it will least not on its own, anyway.

- We could give every person in the state a doctorate, but unless businesses decide to locate here that utilize those types of special skills, West Virginia as a state will be no better off. The status of the West Virginia policy climate is no mystery; it is widely hailed as the worst in the Union, and is a topic we've dealt with at length.

- So what do the students do with their degrees and no West Virginia jobs to go after? They find jobs elsewhere. No surprise there. In this light, West Virginia is not only not helping itself, but also subsidizing the human capital of its neighbors. I've taught a number of students with PROMISE scholarships and this is exactly their choice set. Many of them would prefer to stay in West Virginia ceteris paribus but they just don't have employment options commensurate to their education level.

- It's not like West Virginia conjured this idea out of our thin mountain air. The World Bank thought this was the path to prosperity in Africa, only instead of growth the individuals either a) moved out of the area, just like in the case of West Virginia, or b) became more knowledgable of how to rent-seek and fleece the ever-worsening systems in their homelands. There's a good amount of that going on here in West Virginia as well.

- It's really debatable as to whether the PROMISE scholarship is having a significant impact in sending more kids to college. It may keep more kids in state attending college who otherwise may have gone to college outside of West Virginia-- of course, the taxpayers foot the bill, and when they head off for greener employment pastures you wonder what the upside for West Virginia is. The program, I have gathered, was to give opportunities to low income individuals to get a chance at college. It should be noted that oppotunities (read: scholarships) did/do exist for low income individuals, especially low-income, high-performing students. Further, since empirics bear out that higher income children tend to do better in school than lower income children, a wide swath of these scholarships are ending up in the hands of families that would otherwise have paid for their children to attend college in West Virginia. All of this aside, capital markets function well, and borrowing for education is nowhere near uncommon.

- This argument I'd never heard before but was relayed to me this morning from a professor at Penn State (they are considering a similar program in Pennsylvania). The PROMISE scholarship, as compared to similar programs around the country, has more stringent academic requirements to qualify. Thus, they are even more selective of the academic upper crust than other states. Well, it's been shown that those who do best in high school-- the very best-- tend to segue into courses of study (such as engineering and medicine) that lead them to a more regional, if not national, job search upon commencement from college.

It's with good intentions that these programs are thought up-- but as Ben Harper says, "There's good deeds, and there is good intention; they're as far apart as heaven and hell."

(I could have sworn that I wrote something about this before, but I can't find it in the archives, so if I'm an idiot and all of this is just rehashed from a previous, unfindable-to-me post, my apologies.)