Today we are once again treated to a declaration that there is simply no way the crazy Bennett Hypothesis -- the theory that student aid helps fuel college price inflation -- is true. This time, the end-all-debate pronouncement comes from David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, who cites three apparently definitive reports as proving aid is not "driving up" costs.
Aside from the problem that the argument is really that aid fuels price increases rather than driving them -- the aid is the gasoline, the colleges the car drivers -- what do the studies offered by Warren really tell us?
First is the 2001 federal report everyone who wants to declare the Bennett Hypothesis dead loves to cite: "Study of College Costs and Prices, 1988-89 to 1997-98," from the National Center for Educational Statistics. As Warren accurately cites, the report does say:
Regarding the relation between financial aid and tuition, the regression models found no associations between most of the aid packaging variables (federal grants, state grants, and loans) and changes in tuition in either the public or private not-for-profit sectors.
But, then, it also says this:
[T]here are considerable data limitations in these models: for example, the availability of only one year of financial aid data and a lack of comparably recent financial data (especially for private not-for-profit institutions). IPSFA data on loans include all sources of student loans; federal subsidizedand unsubsidized, institutional, and private loans cannot be disaggregated. In addition, the IPSFA aid variables focus on the packaging of various forms of student aid in terms of the percentage of students receiving aid and the average amount received, and therefore cannot be used to explore the possibility of a revenue interaction at the institutional level between federal aid and institutional aid. Due in large part to the accounting standards used by the institutions themselves, information on financial aid collected through the IPEDS system for the available years is incomplete, especially regarding student loan volume, which cannot be isolated from tuition revenue in the IPEDS Finance survey data. Finally, financial data such as instruction expenditures cannot be isolated to undergraduate students, making any comparison with undergraduate tuition inexact.
Essentially, the report contains a regression based on a change in student aid for just one year and can't adjust for a whole bunch of important things. In other words, it tells us little and in no way closes the door on Bennett.
Next, Dr. Warren cites a February 1998 commission report in which the commission purports not to have found any evidence that student grants effect college prices, and no "conclusive" evidence that loans enable rising prices. Then again, the Commission did no meaningful empirical analysis of the question, and as dissenting member Francis McMurray Norris objected, "issues such as tenure, cost and value of research, duplication of facilities, teaching loads, and relationship of student loan programs and rising costs have not been addressed." [Italics added]
Grounds for putting the Bennett Hypothesis in a pine box? Hardly.
Finally, Dr. Warren cites a 2011 GAO report that looked only at the effect of an increase in the federal student loan limit for first- and second-year students, and only tracked three years of prices and enrollment. It concluded that enrollment and prices rose at rates generally consistent with recent "prior years." Of course, looking at the effect of such a narrow change in overall aid over such a short time period without controlling for myriad variables that impact prices tells us basically bupkis.
The fact is that several empirical studies do show student aid enabling schools to raise their prices, and I have listed many of them. It is also the case, as most studies point out, that it is very difficult to definitively isolate the effects of aid when so many factors -- from school type to student characteristics -- are in play. That's when basic logic also has to come in: People in colleges are like everyone else, and will be happy to take more money if it's available. Aid makes it available.
One thing that cannot be supported is insisting, as Mr. Warren does, that we know for certain there is no connection between student aid and rising prices. That is something that truly has been disproven.