Colleges’ Other Big Dance

Colleges and politicians love the Big Dance, but not the one you’re thinking of. No, I’m talking about the constant, nationwide tap dance around the mere possibility that super-abundant student aid might fuel rampant tuition inflation. Case in point, a lengthy article in the Boston Globe this weekend that flitted and twirled around higher-education costs but completely ignored the possibility that ballooning aid might abet mega-inflation. The closest the Globe came to tackling that very real possibility was this bit buried deep in the article:

It must be said that parents are not entirely blameless. For their money, they demand amenities like state-of-the-art gyms and dormitories in a dog-chasing-its-tail spiral.

The real problem, of course, is that much of the money parents are waving around to demand the best isn’t theirs at all: it belongs to taxpayers, a little tidbit that got nary a nod in the Globe. In the 2003-04 school year (the latest with available data), 48 percent of undergraduates received some sort of federal aid, including grants, loans, work study, or some combination thereof. Overall, inflation-adjusted aid coming through Washington rose 77 percent over just the last ten years, from $48.7 billion to $86.3 billion. Add to that $7.8 billion in state grants in the 2006-07 school year, $26.3 billion in grants from institutions, and $10.2 billion in private/employer grants, and two things are abundantly clear: there are tankers full of aid dollars out there, and they have to be playing at least some role—and probably a huge one—in driving up college costs.

So when will the media stop taking the higher education/politician party line that aid is the key to college access and has no impact on prices? I’m not sure, but I have a bad feeling that lots of the enjoyable big dances will have passed before it starts to happen.