Tag: tuition inflation

A Bone Is Nice. Actually, No.

After House Republicans’ weak first attempt at offering cuts to gargantuan federal spending – a proposal that included nary a flick at education-related outlays – and the Obama administration’s hinting that it would leave education totally untouched, there is a tiny bit of good news: Both the GOP and the administration are apparently willing to trim funding putatively intended to help educate people. But these are just tiny bones they’re throwing to people who know that the federal government likely does zero net good when it comes to actually educating people, and that there is no acceptable excuse not to make big cuts to federal “education” programs.

House Republicans, for their part, scheduled lots of education programs for shaves in their second attempt at making a reasonable budget proposal. All told, though, the cuts would amount to only about $4.9 billion out of a total Department of Education budget of about $63 billion. For those keeping track at home, that’s just a 7.7 percent cut.

Now, maybe that would be reasonable if ED-administered programs worked, but as we at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom have laid out repeatedly, they do not. Overall, they pour money into already cash-bloated K-12 and higher education systems; insulate public elementary and secondary schools from ever having to compete for and earn their money; and fuel rampant college tuition inflation by constantly increasing aid that lets schools raise their prices with impunity. Perhaps the most telling sign that the House GOP is not serious about really cutting Washington down to size, though, is that the laughable Exchanges with Historic Whaling and Trading Partners program is not on their chopping block. If you won’t pick off this ridiculous, almost-on-the-ground-it’s-hanging-so-low fruit, you simply aren’t really trying.

For the Obama administration, while the details of their proposed cuts aren’t yet out, early Fox News reporting says the administration will propose cutting Pell-Grant spending by $100 billion over ten years. That’s a bit surprising, because President Obama has made getting as many people to graduate college as possible – regardless, sadly, of whether that means there’s actually greater learning – a key education goal. Moreover, constantly growing Pell has long been a way for federal politicians to demonstrate that they ”care” about educating all Americans. So, maybe, one cheer for the administration.

Unfortunately, as is often the case when it comes to budgeting, this might be a trick. An unnamed administration official reportedly told Fox that the administration will propose keeping the maximum Pell at $5,550 a year and would realize savings by ending year-round Pell eligibility. With year-round Pell, a student could get two grants in a calendar year for taking a regular academic-year load as well as summer school. According to the Fox News story, the ”official said the costs” of year-round Pell ”exceeded expectations and there was little evidence that students earn their degrees any faster.”

So why’s this potentially a trick? The budget experts could no doubt give you lots of reasons, but knowing education policy I can safely say one thing: It is far too early to say whether or not the year-round Pell would help students earn their degrees any faster. Why? Because year-round Pell was only instituted in 2008, much too recently to have any useful empirical data about its effect on graduation rates. It also seems likely that this will produce no savings regardless because students will still take Pell grants for the same number of total credit hours.

Of course, the main problem with Pell is that it enables schools to ratchet up their tuition rates, capturing all the aid and not making students any better off. Even bigger than this, though, is that almost certainly because spending on education plays so well politically, the administration is ignoring the same screaming reality as the House GOP: Federal spending on education does little if any educational good! Add to that the unconstitutionality of federal involvement and there is simply no acceptable argument – including a desire to “win the future” – for not eliminating federal spending done in the name of “education.”  Indeed, if we want to win the future, ending bankrupting spending we know does zero good is absolutely imperative.

Secretly Happy Colleges Should Mean Overtly Angry Taxpayers

Yesterday, House Republicans introduced their preliminary list of spending cuts, cuts that were, they declared, ”to go deep.” Unfortunately, coming in at just $74 billion, they were about as deep as onion skin. After all, the total federal budget is well over $3 trillion, and the national debt now exceeds $14 trillion

The relatively lilliputian size of the proposed cuts should give any taxpayer major queasiness over Republicans’ desire to truly rein in government. But if that doesn’t scare you, this report from Inside Higher Ed absolutely should:

Shhh. Don’t tell, and they’ll never admit it publicly. But college officials are (very quietly) feeling okay – at least for now – about how Congressional Republicans would treat the programs that matter most to higher education in their first whack at the federal budget.

Why should ivory tower denizens be secretly peppy, and taxpayers openly upset? Because the House GOP pretty much left higher ed funding untouched, despite the fact that the ivory tower is soaking in putrid, taxpayer-funded waste. Quite simply, the federal government pours hundreds of billions of dollars into our ivy-ensconced institutions every year, but what that has largely produced is atrociously low graduation rates; at-best dubious amounts of learning for those who do graduate; ever-fancier facilities; and rampant tuition inflation that renders a higher education no more affordable to students but keeps colleges fat and happy.

I’ve said it before and I will say it again: If federal politicians won’t significantly cut ”education” spending – spending that has done next to nothing to increase actual learning – then they are not serious about reining in the deficit or cutting government down to size. They are still, sadly, much more concerned about appearing to “care” about education than doing what needs to be done.

Merry Christmas, Ivory Tower!

If you ever want to see how federal student aid is used for political gain, look no further than the report on the American Opportunity Tax Credit released today by the U.S. Treasury Department.  The accolade-begging for the President begins right on the cover page:

The President created the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which he signed into law in February 2009. For tax years 2009 and 2010, the new law allows families with tuition expenses to receive a tax credit of up to $2,500 per student, and up to $1,000 per year of this amount is refundable. If the AOTC is made permanent, as proposed in the President’s FY 2011 Budget, a student could receive a credit up to $10,000 over four years. 

The President, of course, doesn’t create these things, the legislative branch does. But the Prez, apparently, wants the credit for the credits. A White House event  scheduled for today suggests why: It appears that the President will be using the report, as well as his proposal to extend the AOTC, to curry favor with college students, a potentially large voting bloc. 

The content of the report, unfortunately, is just as bad as its PR use, going on and on about how much free money the credit offers for college, and breaking down the benefits so every type of filer can see how he or she might benefit. Meanwhile, there’s hardly amention of the AOTC’s cost – something in which you’d think the Treasury Department would be at least a little interested.  But, to be fair, I’m not just talking about the obvious cost to taxpayers who will sooner or later have to foot the bill for this Santa Claus program. Arguably the even bigger cost is that expanding federal aid like this ultimately just enables colleges to raise their prices and capture the money, making it a major, self-defeating source of fuel for rampant tuition inflation.

So the AOTC will do little or nothing to make college more affordable in the long-run. It will, though, make colleges and their employeesbetter off, and create the powerful illusion that Washington politicians – especially, in this case, the President – are doing their best to make college affordable for all.  And that, as pure-PR reports like this one strongly suggest, is likely the primary goal.

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.

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.

The Biggest Leeches Always Live

By proposing to eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan Program, President Obama has raised a pretty big ruckus in the relatively staid world of higher education policy. For the uninitiated, FFELP uses taxpayer dollars to essentially guarantee profits to participating financial institutions, and to keep student loans cheap and abundant. 

Since neither corporate welfare nor rampant tuition inflation are really good things, getting rid of this beast would be a welcome move. Unfortunately, the president wants to replace FFELP with direct-from-Washington lending and to plow the savings into Pell Grants, so there’ll be no savings for taxpayers and probably very little beneficial effect on college prices. 

As I wrote on NewMajority.com in May, no one should expect big lenders to get kicked off the federal gravy train:

[T]he Obama administration is saying they’d keep private companies as servicers of loans to maintain quality customer service. Of course, this could very well be worse than the status quo: It will likely keep at least the biggest current lenders (read: Sallie Mae) at the political trough, but Washington will be THE lender for all students.

Right I was! Or, at least, signs of my prescience keep getting brighter:  Despite Obama promising to go to war against an ”army” of lenders’ lobbyists, the U.S. Department of Education just awarded Sallie Mae and three other big lenders lucrative contracts to service federal loans. So while smaller leeches could very well be removed from their supply of taxpayer blood, the biggest will keep on sucking!

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.