Higher Ed and Presidential Campaigns: Incompatible Bedfellows? (Part 1)

Let’s examine the merits of the prevailing sound bites on colleges and universities

I have worked as a higher education instructor, researcher and administrator for more than four decades. Over that span, I’ve seen many presidential campaigns, and in almost every case, higher education has not been a plank in the platform of either of the major parties. Those of us in the groves of academe may have been ignored by presidential candidates in the past, but at least we knew that we would not be troubled by them.

Ah, for the good old days!

This year, higher education seems to be a part of every candidate’s agenda. (See, for example, “Punch Lines Versus Polish on Iowa Trail,” The New York Times, Jan. 1, 2016.) The Democratic candidates are focused on making college far more affordable – even tuition-free in the mind of at least one candidate. The Republican candidates are focused on affordability as well, but with much greater emphasis on the need for institutions to reduce their prices and/or the need for Washington to reduce federal financial aid – since some argue that it is the easy availability of federal grants and subsidized loans that permitted colleges to raise their prices so much in the first place (although there are few studies that support that contention, and many that refute it). Finally, at least one candidate is focused on “practical” education (“we need more welders and less [sic] philosophers,” “In GOP Debate, Rubio Again Criticizes Philosophy,” Inside Higher Ed, Nov. 11, 2015).

As the political primaries take place, with the inevitable coalescing behind a single candidate in each major party, it will be interesting to see how these various ideas play out: How will each of them be received by the American public, and which one will emerge as the most important?

Lost in the sound bites from the candidates is the fact that these ideas are not discrete, but rather are very much interrelated. However, before we discuss how they interrelate, let us first look at them individually.

“College for Free (Sort Of)”

In several previous posts, I addressed the angst felt by students and their parents as they confront the reality of today’s posted prices for tuition and other college costs, and the likelihood of the family’s having to assume substantial debt to pay for college. Further increasing their concern are the many articles and stories in the media that focus on individuals with student loan debts of more than $100,000, and the consequences these people face in trying to become financially independent with such high levels of student loan debt. There is no question that a politician who advocates for sharply reduced (or free) tuition, or educational debt relief, will find broad support from those soon to enter college, or from those who have graduated with substantial debt.

But we should be skeptical about quick fixes to complex problems that have arisen over long stretches of time. Consider the following:

  • The first public colleges and universities in America date to 1790; many more were created as a consequence of the Morrill Act of 1862. The idea of highly subsidized public higher education has been around for a long time, and the number of institutions (and the number of students served) has increased dramatically over the past two centuries. But since about 1980, most states have greatly reduced their subsidies (especially during the last decade), and, to make up for lost state support, public colleges and universities have significantly increased their prices, making public higher education much more expensive (as a proportion of median family income) than at any previous time in our nation’s history. The point is, pricey public higher education is a very recent phenomenon, largely caused by decisions at the state level to cut public funding for higher education. Democratic presidential candidates propose either direct federal support, or mechanisms to “encourage” states to make the funding of their public colleges a higher priority, or lose federal dollars. Is this a wise strategy?
  • The relative unaffordability of public higher education is far more true for the flagship state universities than it is for community colleges. Low-income students are generally eligible today for Pell Grants that fully cover the costs of tuition and books at almost all community colleges. Thus, for these students, college is already free – and community colleges are designed, in number and location, to be within commuting distance of a very large percentage of the American public, thereby avoiding the additional costs associated with on-campus room and board. I don’t mean to suggest that it is easy for low-income people to earn a college degree. Many have to work while in school to pay for living expenses – and community colleges generally do not offer four-year degrees (although this is changing rapidly, because of collaborations with four-year public institutions that permit students to stay at the community college while earning their four-year degree). But it is far from certain that tuition-free public universities would see a dramatic increase in their enrollment of low-income students, because these students will find that the remaining costs associated with room and board, books, fees and living expenses still would render the public institutions unaffordable.
  • It is important to recognize that there is no such thing as ”free tuition.” What the candidates are suggesting is a transfer of the costs of public higher education, in whole or in part, to the American taxpayers. That is arguably a good thing, insofar as it returns us to the situation that existed 40 years ago, when public institutions received very large subsidies from the state. Some presidential candidates have said that we, as a country, should be thinking about publicly supported higher education in the same way as we now think about publicly supported K-12 education – as an investment our society makes in its own future. But the decision by the states to have publicly supported K-12 education was made over an 80-year period (from the time Massachusetts adopted the practice, before the Civil War, until Mississippi agreed, in the early years of the 20th century). Surely a decision to have the taxpayers on the hook for paying the costs of tuition for students in public colleges and universities deserves a longer debate than the time allowed in a single presidential campaign.
  • And there is the practical aspect of exactly what is the taxpayer paying for? Tuition alone? Fees? Books? Room and board? Miscellaneous living expenses? Will prospective students need to demonstrate some level of academic proficiency? (The large majority of students who begin community college fail to receive a degree, and almost half of the students who start at a four-year public institution fail to receive a degree within six years. Should the American public support programs with such a high failure rate?)One might reasonably assume that underlying idea behind free tuition is to create a more level playing field, such that a larger number of low-income students will enroll and ultimately receive a college degree. But unless the lower-income students receive a far better K-12 education than most now receive, they will likely find themselves still academically ineligible for admission to most four-year public universities.
  • Perhaps we should consider using a means test to determine who would be eligible for free tuition. At present, students from high-income families are far more likely to attend college than are students from low-income families. In fact, the percentage of low-income high school graduates entering college actually fell by 10 percent between 2008 and 2013 (“Study Finds Drop in Percentage of Low-income Students Enrolling in College,” Inside Higher Ed, 25, 2015). But because affluent students are not eligible for need-based institutional aid, they currently pay significantly more than students from low-income families. Are presidential candidates advocating that students from families with high incomes should pay no tuition – especially given that some of the tax dollars that would support free tuition would come from people with lower incomes and no college education themselves? Is that sound policy?
  • Finally, the absence of tuition at public universities will draw students away from private colleges and universities that will receive no taxpayer support. A significant fraction of the private colleges are likely to close as a consequence, meaning a migration of their students into the public sector – and that will require still more taxpayer dollars not just to cover the additional tuition costs for these students, but also to build more classrooms and laboratories and to hire more faculty and staff.

In summary, we have to be wary of the law of unintended consequences when we listen to politicians’ ideas. There is, as we have long been reminded, no such thing as a free lunch – and there is also no such thing as “free” tuition. (See also “Free Tuition Is Not the Answer,” The New York Times, Nov. 30, 2015.)

Next week, Part 2: College for some, college for many, or college for all?