Thursday, September 12, 2013

Making Higher Ed Affordable

Higher Education plays a clear role in economic mobility and presents an unmatched avenue for self-made success.  In areas such as Howard County, higher education is a presumed destination, forgetting that someone with a bachelor's degree remains the exception.  Only 30% of American adults hold a bachelor's degree and that's an all-time high.

Nevertheless, the presumption of necessity, paired with subsidies from state and local government, and the ready availability of private loans, has inflated the costs of higher education to levels in ways that would make medical costs blush.

About a year and a half ago, the President of my alma mater, Lycoming College, came to visit a group of alumni in Baltimore.  He spoke about how the average American family will likely be priced out of paying for higher education within our lifetimes (understand that I was the youngest in attendance) and that this would be maintained by a class of educated workers in perpetual debt.  Rather than lament the stresses of debt, he noted that having our highest earners under constant debt would curtail the very things that make higher education attractive - economic mobility, opportunity, and growth.

Government bears a significant measure of fault in inflating tuition prices.  We've seen time and again how superfluous subsidization of goods can create artificial prices that are much higher than what the market would pay in the absence of that subsidy.  However, we also need to recognize that higher education is a unique good in that it is both equally desirable and intended to be equally accessible to all levels of income.  Never mind the fact that one must "apply" to purchase this good, which is a matter of analysis that certainly escapes this humble writer.

But let's look at the effect of subsidies:

It is hard to extrapolate much from the two graphs since causation goes unexplained.  Did the higher rates cause higher subsidization or the reverse? 

This is a problem.  There will come a day, probably soon, when tuition rates outpace opportunity.  Some would even say that day is at hand.  And please spare me the counter-arguments about "Theatre" degrees and the irresponsibility of pursuing areas of study that aren't marketable.  I know plenty of high income earners who worked hard in challenging course-work that are still floundering in debt.

At the state level, I think we can take on some of these challenges just by re-imagining the problem.

1) Offer additional opportunities for college credit at the high school level via partnerships with community colleges to allow students to earn up to a semester's worth of credit before graduating;

2) Increase scholarship opportunities for those interested in pursuing careers in public service (i.e., teachers, police, fire, social workers) -- This would be a much better use of funds used for Legislative Scholarships;

3) Analyze the effect of state subsidies on tuition prices at public and private institutions and restructure this expense to decrease tuition prices across all income levels.

We can take on tuition costs or tuition costs will take on us.  I appreciate the President's efforts in this regard, but I think the heart of the problem will need to be taken up by the states.

That's all for today.  Have a great Thursday doing what you love!