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.

Nassau Hall, Princeton
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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