Tag: colleges and universities

‘Education’: The Relentless Political Weapon

On at least six occasions in his address to the nation last night President Obama invoked the words “education,” “student,” or “college” to scare listeners into thinking that the federal government must have increased revenues. Typical was this bit of cheap, class-warfare stoking rhetoric:

How can we ask a student to pay more for college before we ask hedge fund managers to stop paying taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries? How can we slash funding for education and clean energy before we ask people like me to give up tax breaks we don’t need and didn’t ask for?

Now, I’m all for eliminating economy-distorting tax loopholes, incentives, etc. But there is simply no way on God’s green Earth that the President—or anyone else—could look at what the federal government has done in the name of education and conclude that it has been anything but a bankrupting, multi-trillion-dollar failure:

  • Spending on Head Start is ultimately just money down a rathole according to the federal government’s own assessment
  • In K-12 education, Washington has dropped ever-bigger loads of cash onto schools out of ever-bigger jumbo jets, but has gotten zero improvement in the end
  • In higher education, all the money that supposedly makes college more affordable is actually a major driver behind students having ”to pay more for college”—just what the President decries—because it enables colleges to raise their prices at rates far outstripping normal inflation

The only people who regularly benefit from federal education profligacy are not students, but school employees and, especially, their lobbyists. They are teachers’ unions, tenure-track college professors, school administrators of all varieties, but not students, and definitely not taxpayers. Oh, and one other group: politicians who, despite the overwhelming evidence that all their spending on education is utterly useless, just keep exploiting students to buy votes and beat down anyone who would return the federal government to a sane—and constitutional— size.

Education, for our politicians, is not a thing to be fostered. If it were, they’d get out of the business. No, it is a political weapon, and it continues to be used to deadly effect.

Obama Ringing the Pell

As part of his ill-considered credentialing-to-compete initiative, President Obama wants to greatly increase both the size and availablity of Pell Grants. Under his proposed FY 2011 budget, the total pot of Pell aid would rise from $28.2 billion in 2009 to $34.8 billion in 2011; the maximum award would go from $5,350 to $5,710; and the number of students served would rise by around 1 million.  

A critical question, of course, is whether increasing Pell will ultimately make college more affordable or self-defeatingly fuel further tuition inflation. The New York Times took that up in yesterday’s Room for Debate blog.

Economist Richard Vedder has long educated people about the inflationary effect of student aid, and does so again with great clarity. It’s higher-ed analyst Art Hauptman, however, whom I think best captures what likely occurs when Pell is combined with all the cheap loans and other aid furnished by Washington, states, and schools themselves:

The degree to which student aid affects what colleges and universities charge varies between the Pell Grant and student loans. The Pell Grant has not had much effect on tuition levels in part because the amount of the awards does not vary with where a student enrolls. Institutions cannot affect how much a student receives, and the institutions that charge the most enroll the fewest Pell Grant recipients.

By contrast…there are several good reasons to believe that student loans have been a factor in the rising cost of a college education. Tuition has increased by twice the inflation rate for the past three decades while annual loan volume has increased tenfold in constant dollars.

Unlike Pell Grants…colleges have some control over how much students borrow as loan amounts. Moreover, just as one couldn’t imagine house prices being as high as they now are if mortgage financing were not available, it is difficult to believe that colleges and universities could have increased their charges so rapidly over time without the ready availability of students’ ability to borrow.

[W]e should worry…that increases in Pell Grants may lead institutions to reduce the amount of discounts they would otherwise have provided to the recipients, who are from poor families, and move the aid these students would have received to others. This possibility…is supported by the data showing that public and private institutions are now more likely to provide more aid to more middle-income students than low-income students.

So what’s likely going on? Cheap federal loans – which are available to students of all income levels and vary according to a college’s price – are probably the main direct tuition inflator. More indirectly, Pell probably encourages schools to move other aid from poorer to wealthier students, enabling the latter to pay ever-higher “sticker” prices. In other words, student aid powers tuition inflation!

Which brings me to a quick comment about the submission from College Board economist Sandy Baum, who trots out the standard “declining state appropriations”  to explain our college-price pain.

How many more times do I need to disprove this? Apparently, at least once more:

(Source: State Higher Education Executive Officers)

Public funding is a roller coaster and tuition revenue an incline. Over the last quarter century, per-pupil state and local funding for public colleges and universities went up and down, but dropped overall by a mere $8 per year. In contrast, public colleges’ per-pupil revenue from tuition (net of state and local student aid) rose more or less unabated, growing by about $73 per year. 

This – as well as the fact that private colleges are also guilty of huge price inflation – clearly belies the notion that colleges raise prices because skinflinty governments make them. That might be part of the explanation, but an even bigger part is almost certainly that colleges raise prices because, thanks to ever-growing student aid, they can.

Lies Our Professors Tell Us

On Sunday, the Washington Post ran an op-ed by the chancellor and vice chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, in which the writers proposed that the federal government start pumping money into a select few public universities. Why? On the constantly repeated but never substantiated assertion that state and local governments have been cutting those schools off.

As I point out in the following, unpublished letter to the editor, that is what we in the business call “a lie:”

It’s unfortunate that officials of a taxpayer-funded university felt the need to deceive in order to get more taxpayer dough, but that’s what UC Berkeley’s Robert Birgeneau and Frank Yeary did. Writing about the supposedly dire financial straits of public higher education (“Rescuing Our Public Universities,” September 27), Birgeneau and Yeary lamented decades of “material and progressive disinvestment by states in higher education.” But there’s been no such disinvestment, at least over the last quarter-century. According to inflation-adjusted data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers, in 1983 state and local expenditures per public-college pupil totaled $6,478. In 2008 they hit $7,059. At the same time, public-college enrollment ballooned from under 8 million students to over 10 million. That translates into anything but a “disinvestment” in the public ivory tower, no matter what its penthouse residents may say.

Since letters to the editor typically have to be pretty short I left out readily available data for California, data which would, of course, be most relevant to the destitute scholars of Berkeley. Since I have more space here, let’s take a look: In 1983, again using inflation-adjusted SHEEO numbers, state and local governments in the Golden State provided $5,963 per full-time-equivalent student. In 2008, they furnished $7,177, a 20 percent increase. And this while enrollment grew from about 1.2 million students to 1.7 million! Of course, spending didn’t go up in a straight line – it went up and down with the business cycle – but in no way was there anything you could call appreciable ”disinvestment.” 

Unfortunately, higher education is awash in lies like these. Therefore, our debunking will not stop here! On Tuesday, October 6, at a Cato Institute/Pope Center for Higher Education Policy debate, we’ll deal with another of the ivory tower’s great truth-defying proclamations: that colleges and universities raise their prices at astronomical rates not because abundant, largely taxpayer-funded student aid makes doing so easy, but because they have to!

It’s a doozy of a declaration that should set off a doozy of a debate! To register to attend what should be a terrific event, or just to watch online, follow this link.

I hope to see you there, and remember: Don’t believe everything your professors tell you, especially when it impacts their wallets!

Taxpayers, Anyone? And How About Tuition Inflation?

The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsiblilty Act will probably be approved by the House of Representatives today, and to push it along the bill’s sponsor, Rep. George Miller (D-CA), makes clear for whom he is working:

Let’s remember whose voices really matter here. It’s time to listen to our students and our families.

First of all, do the voices of taxpayers not matter at all? You know, the folks who are going to foot the bill for all this largesse? Oh yeah – concentrated benefits, diffuse costs. And have students and their families really been trees falling in the wilderness with no one to hear them? With inflation-adjusted aid per full-time-equivalent student (table 3) rising from $4,454 in 1987 to $10,392 in 2007 – a 134 percent increase – it sure doesn’t seem so.

In fairness, the bill’s proponents have paid lip service to taxpayers, saying with straight and utterly deceptive faces that SAFRA won’t cost taxpayers a dime. The thing is, not only is this totally unsupportable according to several Congressional Budget Office analyses, it completely ingores that tax money is covering all of the costs of the bill. SAFRA would simply transfer taxpayer ducats from backing ostensibly private loans to loans directly from Washington, as well as lots of other federal expenditures.

And then there’s this: SAFRA supporters can talk all they want about helping students and families, but increasing grants and loans ultimately just hurts college-goers. Why? Because colleges and universities raise their prices to capture every additional penny of aid, as basic economics makes clear they would. So the only people politicians are ultimately helping are colleges, and by appearing to care ever so much about likely voters, themselves.

A Look Inside the Ivory Tower Spiral

With the Obama Administration promising to ramp up all sorts of college-affordability (read: government expenditure) efforts in the coming months, now is a crucial time for Americans to understand why our colleges and universities ingest money as bottomlessly as their students guzzle beer. With that in mind, the release of a new report from the John William Pope Center is perfectly timed. The Revenue-to-Cost Spiral in Higher Education explains how colleges’ internal arrangements render them almost destined to spend every dime they bring in, no matter how wastefully. The basic problem, argues author and economist Robert E. Martin, is that very few colleges and universities are intended to make a profit – which would give “owners” a powerful incentive to maximize efficiency – and no one really seems to be in charge at most schools.

Of course, this is a serious over-simplification of Martin’s argument, so you’ll have to read the report. But don’t just stop there: A few weeks ago the Pope Center held a colloquium right here at Cato to discuss the report, and Pope Senior Writer Jay Schalin just posted an excellent summary of the back-and-forth between participants. I think you’ll find the points about the third-party-payer problem especially powerful, but there are lots of other good arguments highlighted as well.