Tag: college prices

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.

Nothing Good about The Higher Ed Pricing Game

On Tuesday I noted that the College Board had released its annual reports on college prices and student aid. At the time I wrote the post I hadn’t yet been able to download the reports, but was planning to provide a rundown of their major findings once I’d read them. I’ve now done the latter, but it turns out that Ben Miller over at the Quick and the ED has already posted a pretty good summary of the most important findings. Go there if you want the highlights. Don’t go there, though, if you want to know what the highlights mean, at least for anyone other than students. For that, you’ll have to read on here….

The big news is that net college prices – what students pay after aid– have actually decreased over the last 15 years. While sticker prices were rising much faster than incomes and inflation, what students were actually paying dropped. The implication of this is so obvious that Mr. Magoo couldn’t mistake it: Student aid, much of which comes through taxpayers, enables schools to charge ever-higher prices with near impunity.

Back to the Quick and the ED. To some degree, Miller sees declining net price as a triumph for federal aid, making college more affordable even as prices explode:

This story should be encouraging for legislators that fought hard to win Pell Grant increases over the last few years. The steepest decreases in net price occur beginning in the 2007-2008 academic year, the same time Congress began passing legislation that boosted the maximum Pell Grant award several times. This at least suggests that the money spent on the program did play some role in lessening the financial burden for students and was not completely eaten up by sticker price increases.

On the flip side, Miller at least acknowledges that:

The net price figure also lessens the pressure on schools to actually take proactive steps to lower their costs. If the price you list isn’t actually what you charge, then why should anyone care what the listed price is and how high it gets? Net price thus serves as a kind of smokescreen that gets colleges at least partially off fo[r] charging an arm and a leg.

So what’s wrong with this analysis? 

Most important is that Miller softpedals the aid effect, suggesting that the main negative consequence of  ever-increasing assistance is that it bleeds off a bit of the pressure for schools to lower costs. But it likely has a much more destructive effect than that, not just curbing efficiency pressures, but enabling schools to constantly charge and spend more.  It’s a likelihood that student-aid defenders try to dispel by citing studies that cover very short periods of time, or that simply pronounce that we don’t know that it happens. That it probably happens, however, has been borne out empirically, and it’s readily ackowledged by prominent higher educators including former Harvard president Derek Bok, former Stanford vice president William F. Massy, and former University of Iowa president Howard Bowen. Indeed, the latter’s “law” couldn’t be more blunt: “Universities will raise all the money they can and spend all the money they raise.”

Miller’s other major failing is that he completely ignores that all this aid has to come from somwhere, and that “somewhere” is largely taxpayers. (OK, first it’s China.) Just to give you a sense of the impact on taxpayers, College Board data show that between the 1998-99 and 2008-09 academic years, total federal aid – including grant money recipients don’t have to pay back, and loans they (sometimes) do – rose from $61.1 billion to $116.8 billion. Add state aid to that, and the total goes from $66.6 billion to $126.2 billion.

And what are some of the major downsides of these forced third-party payments? Miller mentions a few pricing difficulties for students, but makes no mention of the potentially huge negative consequences for the nation: Encouraging lots of people to attend college who simply aren’t prepared for it; cranking out many more degrees than the job market demands; and potentially slowing economic growth by taking funds from productive uses and giving it to efficiency-averse colleges and students. 

The big finding in the latest College Board data, which the Quick and the ED nails, is that net college prices have been going down. The important story, however, is that this is bad news for the country. Unfortunately, the Quick and the Ed misses that almost completely.

College Prices Aren’t So Bad When Other People Are Paying

Today the College Board – maker of such fine products as the SAT and Advanced Placement exams – released its annual reports on college prices and student aid. College prices, it seems, have gone up significantly over the last year. However, if the following statement from the reports’ author, economist Sandy Baum, is accurate – I haven’t been able to see the reports myself yet – student aid largely offset the price increases. And do you know what that might mean? Colleges were able to charge students more without greatly affecting access by pawning much of the new charges off on donors and taxpayers:

Sandy Baum, the College Board senior policy analyst who wrote both reports, said it was important to focus on the net price students actually paid, after subtracting grants and tax benefits, rather than the published tuition, or sticker price. And in that regard, Ms. Baum said, the situation looks far less dire. “Over all, it could have been worse,” she said.

So could it actually be, as I and others have argued repeatedly, that student aid helps fuel tuition increases by having third parties cover so much of the new costs? Here’s yet more evidence saying that yes, it could.