Are High College Costs Redistributive?

by Mike Konczal, Next New Deal

Aaron Bady has a fantastic piece on the boosters who argue that MOOCs and other forms of online education will fundamentally transform higher education, addressed as a response to Clay Shirky. There’s a few important moves to watch when people make this line of argument. Many who prize the “disruptive innovation” of higher education usually concede that what it will mostly do is provide a cheaper but poorer alternative to the large number of non-elite public institutions that educate the majority of those who seek higher education. The talk is all “Watch out Harvard and Yale! This online education company is going to take you down like Napster took down the record companies.” Then it quickly reverts to the idea of providing “access,” which gets much of its power through the ongoing dismantling of mass public higher education.

Note that, given that online education’s success will be a function of the weakness of public education, there’s a huge incentive for for-profit higher education firms to participate in that dismantling project. And sure enough, there’s a great new article by Sarah Pavlus at the American Independent, “University of Phoenix fought against community college expansion.” There’s “so much money to be made online, and [for-profit schools] didn’t want community colleges coming in at a much lower tuition rate,” she writes. Public institutions are attempting to innovate and provide better services to citizens, but for-profit schools are trying to stop them to bolster their own bottom lines.

This is why the debate about the actual quality of online education is important. Online education can succeed not by providing a better service at a cheaper price, but instead by just providing “access” if public education slowly becomes unavailable. If there’s no public option, then the quality issue becomes moot – then it is just about providing the now missing access to meet the large demand our country has for higher-level education.

Also watch for when online education boosters make an argument of higher education decline rather than online success. They do a rhetorical move to argue that the problems in the non-profit private education institutions extend to public ones. Kevin Carey, for instance, argues that “college spending is the driving force behind affordability or lack thereof in the long run” before noting several paragraphs later that “Inflation-adjusted per-student spending at private research universities, in particular, increased sharply.” He quickly notes that “private universities set the aspirational standards for the industry as a whole,” but public higher education cost inflation is driven mostly by declining public support, not a competitive war with private schools.

As Josh Mason pointed out, this is the equivalent of saying that since the private savings vehicle of 401(k)s have turned out to be a bit of a bust, we should scale back the public retirement vehicle of Social Security. That’s not the case at all! And, if anything, we should view the public option as a version that works.

Tuition as Redistribution

But maybe higher tuition isn’t a real problem. Maybe higher costs are driven by the rich paying more to help out the poor in a private form of egalitarian redistribution. A few weeks ago, Evan Soltas at Bloomberg wrote a version of this argument, which Matt Bruenig picked up on his blog (and here as well). Soltas argues that the huge rise in the advertised (“sticker“) price of colleges is misleading, because the actual cost people pay (“net cost“) is much lower and has been increasing at a lower rate. Soltas argues that “what has happened is a shift toward price discrimination – offering multiple prices for the same product. Universities have offset the increase in sticker price for most families through an expansion of grant-based financial aid and scholarships.” Bruenig and Soltas both emphasize that the rich pay more while the poorest pay less. They use data from the most recent Trends in College Pricing.

There are a few critical points to bring up about this analysis. Contrary to Soltas, this is driven as much, if not more, by public policy, specifically the effect of of a significant expansion in public funding, notably in Pell Grants and military grants. (I believe Soltas’ graph also uses data that includes the extensive network of tax credits, which add up to a lot of money; the cross-section graphs in Bruenig’s graphs does not.) From Trends in Student Aid:

This is one way of providing public funding. Another would be to drive down tuition directly. I took up the idea of supporting public provisioning directly, instead of coupons that provide targeted support, in my recent New America paper. If there are market imperfections, incumbents can capture some of the subsidy while driving up the price for all those who aren’t getting the coupons. Public provisioning, in these cases, lowers the cost for everyone.

Now if you look at the net price by income, you also see those in the top income bracket, here being those with incomes over $100K a year, paying more than the poor, those under $33,000. From Bruenig’s piece:

Soltas argues that “the cost burden of college has become significantly more progressive since the 1990s. Students from wealthier families not only now pay more for their own educations but also have come to heavily subsidize the costs of the less fortunate.” He argues that differences in price reflects an institutional goal of cross-subsidization, where private firms make the rich pay more to compensate the poor. This didn’t strike me as obvious from the data or other resources. In general, price discrimination should be thought of as a transfer from consumers to producers’ surplus. Meanwhile, businesses usually don’t cross-subsidize, and as we saw from the Pell Grant information, a big driver of this is poor people’s payments beng compensated through public funding.

Just to confirm that higher tuition wasn’t redistribution, I emailed one of the authors of the study, Sandy Baum, who told me that “very few students pay more than the actual cost of their education. Affluent students are generally subsidized less than low-income students, but they aren’t actually paying any part of the cost of education for low-income students. Taxpayers generally are subsidizing Pell Grant recipients. But that’s quite different from students paying more than their educational costs to cross-subsidize low-income students.”

Another technical note worth making: Bruenig’s graph also assumes that the poor are attending the same institutions as those who are better off. But they are almost certainly attending schools part-time instead of full-time, and cheaper institutions compared to more expensive ones. One can see this by just looking at the sticker cost of tuition. The sticker price by income has large differences that are slowly increasing.

(Net room and board and other costs has a similar dynamic.)

Making sure that the poor can access education through grants could work as a plan over the future, though we must understand that it is a plan, specifically government planning. There are other plans we could do as well.

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