A Quick College Policy Primer

As the story of Julia—America’s favorite two-dimensional, life-long ward of the state—makes clear, higher education is likely to figure prominently in the upcoming presidential campaign. In addition, as the student loan interest uproar has progressed, I’ve realized that a lot of well-meaning people have little or no clue about higher ed reality. As a result, I’ve put together a few links to some foundational information for reporters, policymakers, and the public to get some much-needed perspective on higher ed. The list isn’t exhaustive, but it gets at the really big issues:

Let Taxpayers Eat Ramen: We hear a lot about supposedly starving students, but almost nothing about the living, breathing people who are supplying all the public funds for higher ed. The Cato report How Much Ivory Does This Tower Need? What We Spend on, and Get from, Higher Education calculates the total burden for those forgotten folks, and how it has changed over the past few decades. And the result is, well, ”Let the taxpayers eat Ramen!”

For-Profit Colleges Are Bad, All Others Are Saints:  If politicos ever decide to go after colleges and universities, it’s usually only those that are openly and officially for-profit. You know, because seeking profit is inherently evil and exploitative. But here’s the thing: As revealed in Federal Higher Education Policy and the Profitable Nonprofits, most of the ivy-clad institutions that wouldn’t stoop to something as squalid as profit-making are actually making big bucks off of undergrads. They just use the booty to reward the people already in the schools rather than investors. Turns out you don’t trade in your self-interest when you take on a career of the mind.

Heartless State Legislatures Are the Problem: Maybe taxpayers are providing more student aid, but they wouldn’t have to if state legislators would stop cutting subsidies to public postsecondary institutions. Or maybe not:  As itemized in my two posts here—one of which includes some back-of-the-online-spreadsheet estimates for every state—it’s not true that state and local governments have been slashing overall aid to public colleges. It’s a teensy bit closer to true on a per-pupil basis, but public institutions have generally raised tuition revenue well in excess of subsidy losses.

Student Aid: The Reverse Chinese Finger Trap: With a Chinese finger trap, the harder you pull, the tougher it is to escape. For college affordability, the harder we pump in student aid, the tougher it is to escape ridiculous college prices. Basically—though many in higher ed will swear it doesn’t happen—colleges raise their prices to capture aid, rendering the aid largely self-defeating. The “how” and “why” of this is explained in the Cato analysis Making College More Expensive: The Unintended Consequences of Federal Tuition Aid, and I pinpoint some of the empirical research—as well as furnish a brief explanation of the limits of such research—here.

Hopefully, these links will be of value as some try to establish Eden for Julia. Because, for the rest of us, doing so will likely require a move decidedly to the east.