From time to time I see a line in which something complex is encapsulated so clearly that I stop reading and exhale. It happened a few days ago with a tweet from Lynn Tincher-Ladner, CEO of Phi Theta Kappa. She wrote,
“In four-year colleges, the higher the tuition fee, the higher the completion rates. For public colleges, the opposite is true. “
I have not seen data behind this; if anyone has, i would like a link.
The phrase struck me as much as it did, I think, because it suggests that when talking about college spending, we’re pretty much looking at it wrong. The bigger story is about state support and revenue stratification.
To see this, just look at completion rates, tuition rates and family income levels in Ivies. They can charge more than $ 80,000 a year (including accommodation and meals), and their completion rates are in the 90s. They disproportionately draw from the wealthiest families. Yes, some offer generous financial aid to low-income students who are recognized, but not many. Between huge salaries, high tuition incomes and students with unusually high social capital, they can get great results even when charging more than the average annual income of an American family.
In a typical public college, by contrast, in the 1920s the total number of graduates, despite the fact that tuition fees are about 10th of the tuition fees that Ivies do. (In some cases, they do not charge tuition fees at all.) The distribution of family income in most public colleges is much more reflective of the country as a whole; in some colleges the vast majority of students receive Pell grants.
The placement of the two sectors with each other makes the story of the “student price” much more challenging. As a rule, those who are in the cheapest establishments are estimated. In this light, it’s not about prices. These are resources available to students, both in the institution and in their families.
Student loan default rates tell a similar story. The highest default rates are for students with the lowest balance. These are usually students who have dropped out and left without a certificate. Those who have borrowed a lot for medical school will be able to return it much more often.
One possible response to Tincher-Ladner’s observation would be to have community colleges significantly raise the cost of tuition. In fact, many states have de facto decided to try this, saving on government operating funding, which was supposed to help keep tuition low. But raising tuition fees is even higher for students who are already attached are unlikely to end well. If my college doubled the tuition fee, I would expect the number of students to drop dramatically, with the biggest drop coming from the most economically vulnerable students. A key variable is the economic vulnerability of students.
In this light, combining accessibility concerns with concerns about the absolute level of learning will inevitably lead to major mistakes. Yes, of course, making learning free is useful. But this is only one part of the picture. Institutions need resources to help students succeed, and students (and their families) need resources that allow them to redirect time from paid work to study. For those with large capital, even learning at the Ivy level is no obstacle. For those with very little, even free tuition can be a challenge.
It’s about affordability, not prices. If it were the other way around, Ivy would have some of the lowest rates in the country.