Oregon Trail 2.0: Why I Wouldn't Raise Kids In Michigan

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My wife and I have reached that point where we are professionally settled and of a certain age that we’re regularly asked: “When are you guys going to have children?” In fact, we often ask ourselves.

The answer became more obvious last week. We’ll have kids after we find gainful employment in Oregon.

Neither of us have any Porlandia fantasies about putting birds on things nor devoting our lives to the “circus arts.” Rather, the appeal for an Oregon Trail 2.0 is the Beaver State’s ambitious plan to overhaul how students pay for college education.

We live in a reality where middle-class incomes are falling relative to inflation and the cost of higher education is skyrocketing compared to inflation. One doesn’t need a Ph.D. in economics to understand how those trends, unabated, will make it nearly impossible not-as-yet-conceived-children to pay for college 20 years from now.

Rather than constantly raising tuition prices, as Wayne State recently did by nearly 10%, and saddling even commuter school students with mortgage-size student loan debts, Oregonians may soon have tuition-free public universities.

Tuition-free isn’t the same thing as free education. Graduates (and, on a pro-rated basis, drop-outs) would pay a 3% tax on their earnings for 24 years after leaving school to fund higher ed.

The plan is only beginning to take shape and it will be 2015 before all details come together. However, the very fact that Oregon is looking for a solution to skyrocketing tuition while Michigan schools can only jack up their prices and point fingers is reason enough for young families to think about heading westward rather than Webward.

Rational vs. Irrational

In so much as universal education is a public good as well as a private one — society gets better doctors, for instance, if the only impediment to medical school is ability — this proposal makes much more sense than the irrational marketplace created by the tuition-based system.

Higher ed truly becomes universally available under the Oregon plan. In exchange for that opportunity, students repay the system in a manner proportional to the economic value of their education.

Yes, a double major in Sanskrit and Feminist Film Theory could graduate to a career as a food co-op cashier. But before you start derping about how the Oregon plan incentivizes such behavior, consider how few people actually want to spend four years studying esoteric subjects before devoting the rest of their lives to near-minimum wage work.

Most people would prefer educational tracks that lead to careers as nurses, accountants, or schoolteachers. You know, grown-up jobs. Of course, it’s hard to recruit good teachers when the value of their salaries is offset by significant student loan debt.

As a possible future parent, I like the idea that my theoretical children would have the opportunity to obtain whatever manner of education their abilities and interests dictate without starting “real life” with crushing debt.

No Fix-It Ideas Here

It's frustrating that Michigan policy makers appear to have zero interest in or ability to even try to fix the very real problem of higher education costs.

Instead of reasonable higher education cost structures for our 4.4% state income tax and 6% sales tax, we get giveaways to Hollywood, tax breaks for Pfizer, taxpayer-funded arenas for Mike Ilitch, and friendly “business climates” designed to retain “job creators” like Pulte Homes. Oops.

We also get terrible roads, piss-poor public transportation, bankrupt local governments operating in an out-moded, inefficient homerule structure, and a $3,800 Wayne State education that now costs nearly $11,000.

Seriously.

In 1987, Wayne State’s annual undergrad tuition was $1,862. That works out to $3,818, adjusting for inflation, in 2013 dollars. But Wayne State doesn’t charge $3,818 for a year’s worth of schooling in 2013. Thanks in large part to cuts in state aid, their annual price tag is now $11,000.

No one of any significance around here seems to know what do about that other than wring hands. Forget about all that. Gov. Rick Snyder is right. We have to face these challenges with relentless positive action.

Market Forces in Action

That is to say, anyone anticipating college expenses 10-20 years from now should consider the action of moving to Oregon (or another state considering a version of Oregon’s plan) with relentless positivity.

This is how markets work. States that incentivize companies making boner pills and octogenarian hockey team owners will end up with companies that make boner pills and octogenarian hockey team owners. At least in the short term.

However, states that meaningfully encourage education for future generations likely end up with a robust future generation of educated citizens capable of filling whatever roles demanded by future marketplaces, creating hundreds (as opposed to tens) of new businesses, and living in your big city’s downtown without a self-satisfied rent subsidy program.

Frankly, Michigan doesn’t deserve my still-a-glimmer-in-their-father’s-eye kids. Oregon, on the other hand, is making one hell of a case.

If/when my family heads out on this new Oregon Trail, tell Gov. Snyder I’m sorry for leaving. They have a more competitive parenting climate out west.

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