Wow! Such a big question! Let’s start by making a key distinction:
(1) One might interpret this question as, “How much does a university charge the student and parents?” Allowing for such significant complications as different sticker prices at different universities, different financial aid packages for different students at the same university, different fees for different majors, additional charges (primarily from rising tuition prices) in the sophomore, junior and senior years – it is nonetheless the case that, when the incoming freshman arrives on campus, he or she (and the parents) know fairly accurately what their out-of-pocket costs will be, at least for the first year. So while this is an important question, and answering it can be confusing and time-consuming, in the end it is answerable. But consider the second alternative.
The New York Times published an article by Catherine Rampell on Sept. 24 titled “Freebies for the Rich.” (Another version of the same article was published in the Times Sunday magazine on Sept. 29.)
In the article, Ms. Rampell points out that, at public universities, the share of aid devoted to “merit” has tripled, to 29 percent, over the past two decades. She also points out that metrics used to determine merit, such as SAT scores, are closely correlated with family income: whereas only one student in 10 receives merit aid in families earning less than $30,000, one student in five receives merit aid in families earning over $250,000.
In his column in The New York Times on March 9, Charles M. Blow states: “We are reaching a crisis point in this country’s higher education system” because of “staggering levels of debt.” He notes that student loan debt has more than doubled in the last eight years, to almost $1 trillion, and that, not unexpectedly, student loan debt is hardest on families in the bottom quintile of family income. Mr. Blow ends his column with, “We are on an unsustainable track. This will not end well.”
How is it that this problem has become so large so quickly? How do we fix it? Is this as big a problem as people claim?
I’m glad you asked. This is a problem that resulted from many intersecting forces:
In Part I of this post, we discussed how the “high cost/high aid” model of price and cost in higher education has led to growing educational debt and a widening achievement gap between affluent and low-income students. This week, we’ll talk about how (and why) to change this model.
But first: consider the following hypothetical conversation between an admissions officer and two prospective students, as he explains the college’s financial aid policy:
In a major front-page, above-the-fold article on Sunday, 23 December, The New York Times told of the widening gap in college completion rates for high-income versus low-income students. The Times illustrated the broader story with specific examples, including one of a student who was admitted to Emory University on what she thought was a full-need scholarship – but, because of problems in completing her financial aid forms, she arrived to find she had no institutional aid, and needed to borrow $40,000 just to enroll for her first year. Ultimately, her financial problems reached the point where her grades suffered, and she was suspended in her senior year. She now has an educational debt of almost $60,000, but no degree.
In my previous post, I noted the diametrically opposed reactions of some colleges and universities to the public’s rising concerns regarding the cost of a college education, and the ballooning debt taken on by a growing number of students and their families.
The large majority of both public and private institutions are tweaking what I believe to be a broken model: they are seeking to increase financial aid while looking for ways of economizing, but, while well intentioned, these are at best temporary bandages on a severe wound. Moreover, these solutions are not sustainable, and, in their efforts to economize, these campuses risk being perceived as cutting the quality of their educational offerings.
A recent analysis showed that the median family income in America, adjusted for inflation, has fallen to levels not seen since 1995. The median inflation-adjusted tuition sticker price at America’s private colleges and universities, however, has grown by more than 50 percent since 1995. The consequence, even with increases in institutional aid, is that a substantially smaller fraction of the population is able to afford today’s prices than was true in 1994.
How have we arrived at this undesirable – and, I would suggest, unacceptable – outcome?
Well, there are several reasons. Higher education is an inherently costly enterprise, and there are few economies of scale: doubling class size, for example, would save money, but it would come at the expense of a personalized learning environment – the primary selling point of private higher education.