When the Articles Collide | Confessions of a dean of a community college
Friday’s edition of Inside Higher Ed had two stories that should really be read side by side. Each makes more sense when read in the light of the other.
The first concerned high school seniors applying to college in unusually low numbers. I was struck by this paragraph:
“Carnevale said that applications for the top 200 colleges in the United States have actually increased; the decline in enrollment mainly affects two-year colleges and non-selective four-year colleges, where low-income and minority students are concentrated.
The implications of this still fly well below the political radar.
The 200 “best” colleges tend to be much more expensive than community colleges and regional public colleges. But their number of requests is increasing. This suggests, first of all, that discussions of the “tuition spiral” that are driving students away are going badly. If schools that charge $ 60,000 per year see the number of claims increase, while schools that charge one-tenth of that amount see claims drop, then the simple talk of “pricing students” doesn’t really work.
Yes, there are a few caveats. For example, schools with high sticker prices are sometimes able to lower them so that low-income students don’t pay the full amount. Which brings me to the second story.
This story ignores a recent article by Zhifeng Cai and Jonathan Heathcote on the impact of wealth disparities on tuition fees. As the IHE article shows, the conclusion is that increased financial support for low-income but high-potential students leads to increased institutional costs. These costs, in turn, are passed on to those who can pay through higher sticker prices. The higher prices are paid by those who can, effectively subsidizing those who cannot.
(It’s worth defining “low income” in this context. For example, according to the Yale website, the total cost of attending an undergraduate student at Yale this year is $ 81,575. is more than the median annual household income in the US For current purposes, “low income” means anyone who cannot afford to spend $ 81,000 in cash on a barrel each year for four years, which fits most people.)
Both stories seem correct, as far as they go, but they are best understood as symptoms of something much larger.
The second story explains, correctly, that remittances are an institutional cost. But that doesn’t explain why applications to elite schools are on the rise or why applications to more affordable schools are down.
The effects of income and wealth polarization go beyond any particular institution. Colleges and applicants live in a political economy. This political economy constitutes the background conditions in which they make decisions. Among other things, it informs the decisions that future students make. The rewards coming back to the top are greater than they used to be, while the potential downside of an expensive but non-elitist degree is worse than before. On the community college front, we are competing with entry-level jobs, which has had the most dynamic market in years. In other words, for our students, the opportunity cost of university has increased.
The sudden boom in entry-level jobs seems unlikely to be the new normal; in time, I expect some students who have chosen to postpone college will find their way home.
In the longer term, however, an economy with extreme rewards at the top and a slippery slope in the middle is likely to remake higher education in its own image. It has already started.
Whether the political economy continues to develop in this way is, at least in part, a societal choice. Higher education has a role to play, but its different sectors must also recognize that the economy of the 1960s, if not the 1990s, is not returning. Adaptation requires recognition. And good policy requires recognizing when a simple story isn’t as straightforward as it looks.
Anyway, thanks to IHE for putting these two articles in the same day edition. Sometimes happy accidents shed light.