Tag: private institutions

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.

Why Fear Leviathan U.?

The Harriet Tubman Agenda – ordinarily a pretty rational blog – takes issue with my recent post expressing unease about a proposal to have Uncle Sam create and furnish free college courses. Accurately noting that American institutions of higher education, including private and for-profit schools, are addicted to government subsidies, the blogger asks what the problem is “if a free curriculum (defined by designated text books and tests), coupled with a competitive market in examination services, reduces the burden on taxpayers”?

Here’s the problem: From the perspectives of both freedom and effectiveness, why would we ever want the federal government creating free college curricula and, potentially, a giant federal university that, thanks to the internet, would not even be bound by the need to have a physical campus? Do we really want both state-run and private institutions, which despite huge subsidies still have to charge tuition and compete with one another, to have to go up against a free, Leviathan University? And why would it matter if the examinations accompanying Leviathan U’s curriculum were created by private companies? If you have to master The Little Red Book – to use an extreme example – does it matter if the testing contract is competitively bid?

The Harriet Tubman Agenda is absolutely right that, engorged with government subsidies, American higher education is grossly wasteful. But replacing it with utterly unconstitutional federal courses that could someday yield a mammoth, federal university? For reasons even more basic than saving taxpayer money, that would be a terrible move.

Indiana: Defender of “the Rule of Law”

While the majority of Chrysler’s senior creditors sacrificed their fiduciary duties and caved into political pressure in accepting the Obama Administration’s pre-packaged bankruptcy of Chrysler, a small group of state pension funds in Indiana has challenged the Obama plan and is asking the Supreme Court to review said plan. As in the 1930s, the protection of contractual rights, one of the most basic pillars of a free society, along with the rule of law, is now in the hands of the Supreme Court.

As discussed in today’s Washington Post, these pension funds believe their rights were infringed by the Administration’s placing of junior creditors in a preferred situation to senior creditors. It doesn’t take Ms. Manners to remind us that cutting in line, whether in traffic, at the grocery store, or in a bankruptcy, is plain rude. To have the government re-order the line for you is even worse.

To re-build confidence in our markets, trust in our institutions must be re-stored. Not simply in our private institutions, but also in our government. If players believe the game is going to be rigged, fewer will be willing to play. And while the Administration has portrayed Chrysler’s senior creditors as nothing more than greedy speculators, the Indiana request exposes that myth. President Obama should clearly articulate why retired state employees, such as teachers and firefighters, should have their pension funds raided solely for the benefit of the auto unions. Here’s to hoping Indiana goes all the way in this Court.

Shuffle, Shuffle, Shuffle…

This morning I attended a federal student aid event at the New America Foundation. The big topic? Not the effect of aid on out-of-control college prices, by far the most important concern from the contexts of economic growth, affordability, fairness to taxpayers, etc. No, it was the Obama Administration’s “bold” (NAF’s word) proposal to kill the federal guaranteed student loan program and do all lending directly from Washington. It was just the kind of debate folks in DC love, one that sounds really important but leaves the government-created problem almost totally untouched.

Here’s the critical reality that was completely ignored: taxpayer-furnished financial aid – whether coming directly from DC or delivered by “private” institutions completely backed by DC – appears to be a very big enabler of rampant tuition inflation. Quite simply, as I lay out in the most recent Cato Handbook for Policy, when government ensures that customers can pay more, students demand more and colleges raise prices.

Of course, the argument that aid drives prices is not without its critics, but they’ve got a tough case to make both in terms of economic theory and college cost reality. In Washington, however, this isn’t even being discussed. In DC, it’s all about the deck chairs and nothing about the sinking ship. But then, as we’ve learned oh-so-clearly over the last several months, politicians gain little from averting disasters they’ve helped cause, and lots from handing out life jackets.

Fortunately, Cato is here to remind politicians about the important stuff, not just to bicker over which special interest gets the biggest tax-dollar windfall. On April 7 we will address the fundamental problems with student aid, hosting a Capitol Hill Briefing on the effects not just of switching from guaranteed lending to direct lending, but of all federal student aid. It’ll be just the kind of discussion Washington so desperately needs but so rarely has.

Register here to attend, or watch online the day of the event.