September 28, 2020

What We Talk About When We Talk About Tuition

What We Talk About When We Talk About Tuition


I would have expected Elizabeth Redden’s story in Inside Higher Ed last week to generate more discussion than it did.  So, here goes my contribution.


Drawing on research from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, she pointed out that enrollments at community colleges nationally dropped 7.5 percent this fall as opposed to last fall.  That was three times larger than the overall drop in undergraduate enrollments at 2.5 percent.  Meanwhile, graduate school enrollments actually increased.


Obviously, I have a personal rooting interest in community colleges.  But leaving that aside for now, I was struck that the data flatly contradict the narrative that high tuition is the main barrier to enrollments.  Community colleges are the least expensive sector for most students.  You would think, if tuition were the main driver of enrollment changes, that enrollment declines would be steepest at the most expensive places, and smallest at the least expensive.  But the opposite is closer to the truth.


It reminded me of the paradox of student loans and default rates.  From press coverage, you would think that the main driver of student loan defaults is high balances.  In fact, the highest default rates are among students whose balances never exceeded $5,000.  The higher the total borrowing, the lower the default rate.  That’s publicly available information, but for whatever reason, most of the commentary on higher ed ignores it.


In this case, the sector with the lowest tuition endured the greatest decline.  Meanwhile, graduate school — home of the six-figure loan balances — actually saw an increase.




It’s almost as if the popular narrative is missing the point completely.


To be fair, not every college has reported its data yet, and there’s probably some level of fine-tuning of the data still to happen.  But this isn’t a matter of explaining, say, a 7.5 percent drop as opposed to a 7.2 percent drop.  That could be anything.  This is too big a difference to explain away as a blip.


My guess is that the gap has much more to do with family income and wealth levels than with tuition levels.  An already-polarized economy became even more so with the pandemic.  Those who were able to sit out the recession via graduate school, did; among folks who otherwise might have gone to community college, more pressing survival needs came first.  


In other words, when we talk about tuition, we aren’t really talking about tuition.  We’re really talking about affordability, which is much more a function of underlying income and wealth than it is of price.  We’re talking about students’ ability to support themselves (or be supported by their families) while pursuing certificates or degrees.  In the context of economic desperation, even free tuition can be too much, because of the opportunity cost of subsistence-level work foregone.  


Getting the problem right is important, because getting the problem wrong will lead to solutions that miss the point.  Having a community college freeze its tuition for a year or two won’t make a meaningful dent in affordability; if anything, given the budget cuts they’d have to enact to compensate, they may make affordability worse.  Addressing affordability at a micro level starts with student supports, of the sort that the #RealCollege campaign addresses; at a macro scale, it requires political measures to address widening wealth inequality.  Yes, I just said “political,” but there’s really no way around that.  Philanthropy is great, and I’m grateful to all of our generous donors, but at the end of the day there’s no substitute for solid middle-class income.  And those don’t occur in nature.  They’re made deliberately, or not made at all.


Why are schools that cost six thousand a year taking bigger cuts than schools that cost ten times as much?  Because it’s not primarily about the schools.



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