Krugman's folly: expensive college for all
Expanding access to higher education—and preparing students well for postsecondary challenges during K-12—is a key priority for the nation's economic competitiveness. The last year alone has seen a variety of initiatives to bend the cost curve, including Rick Perry's $10K bachelor's degree and MIT's certificates (or "badges") for online learning. Community college enrollment also boomed during the financial crisis, with students and parents hunting for a decent education at a "Great Recession"-friendly price. Since college costs have grown faster than inflation (or health care!) since the early 1980s, improving access and controlling costs must be linked.
There's nothing "un-American" about choosing an affordable college over an a elite school.
Photo by Chris Barry.
Paul Krugman sees something sinister, even un-American, in all this talk of value for money, however. He quotes Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney on this point as proof that the GOP doesn't care about education:
Here’s what the candidate told [a student worried about college costs]: “Don’t just go to one that has the highest price. Go to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education. And, hopefully, you’ll find that. And don’t expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on.
My parents are both what Krugman calls "ordinary workers" (a term that rankles me), and I grew up lower middle class, spending most of my K-12 years on free or reduced lunches. My folks nevertheless had high aspirations for me, and they scrimped for twenty years to send me to an expensive private college, with help from private grants and a thankfully modest amount of loans.
Looking back, I wish someone had given me the same "un-American," elitist advice Krugman deplores coming from Mitt Romney. Many of my classmates in business school sought value, rather than a gold-plated diploma, for their undergrad education and did well. The research shows that the earnings of students who are accepted at elite colleges do not suffer if they then choose to attend a less selective (and presumably less expensive) university.
It also isn't true that state support of higher education has plummeted. According to a 2010 report on higher ed finance by the State Higher Education Executive Officers, state aid per student is down about $1,028 (or 14 percent) in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1985, while net tuition has gone up $2,047 in constant dollars, a 90 percent increase. In other words, at least half of the story is cost increases, not government aid. At the same time, attainment of a bachelor's degree has actually fallen.
Equality of opportunity is an important American value, no doubt. But knowing the value of a dollar is important as well. Families want to place their kids at the very best schools—a game rich families win more often than poor families do these days, thanks to thirty years of runaway inflation in higher education. If we prize social mobility fostered by accessible higher education, we need good options that are affordable, not a race to spend more dollars without regard to quality of outcomes.
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About the Editor
Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
Chris Tessone was a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and the Director of Finance of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He has strong interests in governance and education finance, especially teacher compensation and school facilities finance.
May 16, 2013