The Student Aid ‘Myth’ Myth

There’s a very disturbing tendency among academics – though many people in policy fights do it – to dodge substantive debate by declaring, basically, “the other side is full of garbage so just ignore them.” You probably see it most glaringly about climate change – no one credible disagrees with Al Gore! – but I see it far too frequently regarding the possibility that government student aid, the bulk of which comes from Washington, is a significant factor behind college price inflation. 

Today, we are treated to this lame dodge in a letter to the Washington Post from Terry Hartle, Senior Vice President at the American Council on Education, arguably the most powerful of Ivory Tower advocacy groups. He writes:

Second, we must do away with one of the most persistent and pernicious myths of higher education: that increases in federal aid drive up the cost of college. Several studies, including two by the Education Department, show there is no link between federal student aid and tuition increases. But there are still those who would have people believe that modest increases in student aid programs are the driving force behind institutions’ decisions about tuition and fees.

I would love to put this “myth” myth to rest. Yes, as I discuss in my recent policy analysis, there are serious challenges in trying to prove that aid fuels price inflation. Lots of variables affect what colleges charge; you need to study long time frames encompassing several business cycles; and you have to account for the fact that aid automatically rises when prices do. So while there is tremendous logical reason to think aid has enabled price inflation – former college presidents acknowledge as much, basic economics says subsidies drive up demand, etc. – like any social science there is no definitive proof.

That sure as heck doesn’t mean, though, that there isn’t any research showing government aid driving price inflation, even if it doesn’t prove it. In addition to the incredibly powerful rational reasons to strongly suspect aid plays a big role in out-of-control college pricing, there is, indeed, empirical evidence. For the benefit of the whole debate I offer a smattering of it below, hopefully putting an end to the disturbing denial tactic employed by Hartle and others. Hopefully, but not likely….

John D. Singell, Jr., and Joe A. Stone, “For Whom the Pell Tolls: The Response of University Tuition to Federal Grants-in-Aid,” Economics of Education Review 26, no. 3 (2006): 285-95.

Bridget Terry Long, “How Do Financial Aid Policies Affect Colleges? The Institutional Impact of Georgia Hope Scholarships,” Journal of Human Resources 30, no. 4 (2004): 1045-66.

Bradley A. Curs and Luciana Dar, “Do Institutions Respond Assymetrically to Changes in State Need- and Merit-Based Aid? ” Working Paper, November 1, 2010.

Rebecca J. Acosta, “How Do Colleges Respond to Changes in Federal Student Aid,” Working Paper, October 2001.

Michael Rizzo and Ronald G. Ehrenberg, “Resident and Nonresident Tuition and Enrollment at Flagship State Universities,” in College Choices: The Economics of Where to Go, When to Go, and How to Pay for It, edited by Caroline M. Hoxby, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004).