In the first two parts of this series, I addressed some of the ideas regarding higher education that are being promoted by various candidates for president of the United States. In Part 1, I examined the wisdom and folly of eliminating tuition at public colleges and universities. In Part 2, I raised the inconvenient question of what problem the solution of free tuition is intended to solve – and what unintended consequences might result from such a policy. Now, in Part 3, I want to consider yet another factor that explains why there is such divergence of opinions regarding higher education on the part of our presidential candidates.
In my last post, I considered at some length the pros and cons of tuition-free public higher education, as advocated by some candidates now campaigning to be the next president of our country. After all, the reasoning goes, free tuition has been a long-standing policy in the K-12 sector; why not higher education? Different candidates vary with respect to how generous they are prepared to be, with one advocating a means test and at least a token investment by the students and their families, whereas another wants simply to do away with tuition at public colleges for everyone.
Unfortunately, the candidates are not discussing what particular problem their policy is intended to solve. Surely, in order to be effective, solutions have to derive from a collective agreement on, and understanding of, what problem the solution is intended to remedy – and our presidential candidates appear to have skipped this step.
The presidential election is almost a year away, so we still have time to think more about the problem we want to address before we fall in love with a particular solution.
On Jan. 9, President Obama announced the America’s College Promise proposal, an initiative which, if adopted and funded, would make an estimated nine million students eligible for an average of $3,800 per year in tuition assistance at community colleges throughout the nation, for an estimated cost of $60 billion. (“Fact Sheet: White House Unveils America’s College Promise Proposal: Tuition-Free Community College for Responsible Students”)
Modeled after programs in Tennessee and Chicago, the proposal is closely linked to other initiatives of the Obama presidency, including increases in the maximum value of Pell Grants; the expansion of education tax credits; pay-as-you-earn loans (wherein loan payments are capped at 10 percent of income); and so forth, all designed to address the president’s call for increasing the percentage of the adult population with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree from today’s level of approximately 40 percent to 60 percent by 2020.
As President Obama begins the final two years of his second term, and as the next Congress takes office with both houses controlled by the Republicans, what might we expect to see coming out of Washington that will change the landscape for higher education?
College Rating Plan
In August 2013, the Obama White House announced a plan to create a rating system for colleges and universities. In the face of considerable opposition from many higher education organizations and individual campuses regarding the wisdom of any such plan, and the criteria to be used for rating campuses, the timeline for its release has been repeatedly extended.
There is no shortage of commentary regarding the problems of higher education. Too often, however, the wrong people are in the conversation. It’s a waste of time to attempt to convince people of the righteousness of your position if the people to whom you are speaking already agree with you – and if your arguments aren’t precise, you can actually do your cause damage by providing the other side with free ammunition.
By way of example, Suzanne Mettler, a professor of government at Cornell University, has recently written a book with the provocative title of Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream. Essays drawn from the book appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education on March 7, The New York Times on March 1, and a news article on the book was in the Epoch Times on March 31.
Yep, that’s the title of an op-ed in Forbes on Sept. 12, 2013. (Actually, the full title is, “There’s No College Tuition ‘Bubble’: College Education Is Underpriced.”)
Well, that contention came as a bit of shock to me, writing as I have been for many months about runaway sticker prices, and how colleges and universities need to address the issue before the federal government does it for them. What gives?
The author, Jeffrey Dorfman, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Georgia, is a believer in the free market system and a self-described libertarian. Let’s see how his reasoning holds up.
Two recent studies on low-income, high-achieving high school students and the problems they face in gaining admission to elite private schools have attracted considerable attention in both the education and mainstream media.
The first, Expanding College Opportunities for High-Achieving, Low Income Students, by Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Taylor (Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, March 29, 2013) received attention from The New York Times (editorial on April 10, following an article by David Leonhardt on March 16 regarding an earlier study by Dr. Hoxby). The second Hoxby study found that customized information packets, costing about $6 each, sent to low-income, high-achieving students significantly increased the percentage of these students who applied to top-tier colleges. Inside Higher Ed covered this study on April 1, 2013.
The second study, Undermining Pell: How Colleges Compete for Wealthy Students and Leave the Low-Income Behind (Steven Burd, the New America Foundation, May 8, 2013), examined actual data from the 2010-11 academic year for thousands of public and private colleges to determine the average cost for Pell-eligible students at each college and university. The study found that two-thirds of the private institutions charged families earning less than $30,000 per year a net price of over $15,000 a year. As a consequence, the study called for federal action “to ensure that colleges continue to provide a gateway to opportunity.” The Chronicle of Higher Education covered this study on May 8, and The Boston Globe ran a lengthy story that related to the study on May 28.
These two studies are interesting bookends to the same issue: low-income students, even when they are high-achieving in high school, are much less likely to apply to elite schools, and even when they do, they often face insurmountable costs.
Readers of this blog are aware of my none-too-subtle concerns with wealthy campuses that do not exemplify best practices: rather than use their wealth to lower their sticker prices and create greater affordability for more prospective students, they have done just the opposite – they have raised their tuition prices and increased their already obscene levels of per-student expenditures.
But it is more than just a few well-known campuses behaving badly. At a time when American families are only too aware that colleges have become less and less affordable, the underlying cause of this unaffordability is the skewed distribution of revenue to institutions of higher learning in general.
More than one-third of all undergraduates are enrolled in two-year colleges. Some are focused on a two-year degree, but many of them plan to transfer to a four-year school and earn their baccalaureate. This is the least expensive level of higher education, with annual tuition generally around $3,000 – and it is the low cost that has led to swelling enrollments in community colleges.