November 25, 2008

Tuition Increases and Legislative Appropriations

In the Washington Monthly, Kevin Carey discusses
some ways technology can reduce the cost of higher education without reducing the cost of tuition. Carey writes:

In part because of the success of the Math Emporium, the cost of providing math instruction at Virginia Tech has declined dramatically—as much as 75 percent for some courses. But the university’s tuition increased nearly 11 percent this year alone, and Virginia Tech math students are paying twice what they did eleven years ago, when the first Emporium course was offered. If Michael Williams is saving Virginia Tech hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and other colleges are realizing similar savings, why aren’t their students seeing a dime of that money?

For the most part, colleges would just rather spend it elsewhere. The nonprofit Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs recently found that tuition and fee revenue per student at public research universities increased by 34 percent, in inflation-adjusted dollars, from 2000 to 2005. At the same time, spending per student on instruction and academic support declined. This is nothing new—overcharging for introductory courses is standard operating procedure in higher education, and has been for a long time. Colleges routinely use the excess revenues generated by huge, inexpensive lecture hall classes to support other, money-losing activities. Freshmen have always been cash cows—technology just made them more so.

Where did all the money generated by cost savings and price hikes go? In some states, back to the public treasury. Legislatures have a tendency to use public universities as a piggy bank during hard fiscal times, cutting appropriations to higher education with the tacit understanding that colleges can raise prices to make up the difference—a backdoor tax increase on consumers of higher education. [italics in original, boldface added]

First of all, this all tells us nothing without better numbers. If the cost of math instruction has declined up to 75% for some courses, what does that tell us about Virginia Tech's overall cost of instruction. Nothing. And it's a neat bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand to talk about what Virginia Tech math students are paying as the cost of teaching math drops, when presumably Virginia Tech students pay the same no matter what courses they take. (If colleges started pricing courses differently based on how much it cost to teach them, my guess is science majors would not be happy; scientists with labs are expensive to support, though possibly their grants make up for that.)

But more galling is Carey's suggestion that the colleges and universities would rather send money back to the public treasury than keep tuition lower. The last paragraph I quoted could be rephrased: "Legislatures tend to slash university's budgets in hard fiscal times, forcing them to increase their tuition even if they can lower the cost of educating students by innovative use of technology (or, more likely, brute increases in class size)." I don't think any college administrator anywhere (let alone faculty) wants to raise tuition in exchange for losing state support. This is all on the legislatures, and indirectly on the voters.

Carey goes on to criticize spending on athletic departments, new construction, financial aid for rich kids (though he points out this is a net revenue generator), and research. I have some sympathy with some of these criticisms -- athletics more than research, unsurprisingly -- but again, they're pretty worthless without some actual numbers. How does revenue lost to state cutbacks compare to increased spending on construction? For that matter, how much of that construction spending is on luxury stuff and how much is necessary, say because new dorms are needed for the additional students admitted to make up the revenue shortfalls? Carey doesn't say.

(Carey goes on to make an argument about how these forms of spending increase the wrong sort of prestige for the university, because it's difficult to measure the right sort of prestige. I think he's inconsistent about research spending here -- it is part of the university's core mission -- and arguably new construction does improve the educational product, but his points about prestige are worth considering. Admittedly I have kind of a grump on the Washington Monthly on this subject because, after making the signal point that the U.S. News college rankings are ridiculous and pernicious, they decided to come up with a set of rankings that were an arbitrary joke themselves.

But Carey's previous article about measuring student outcomes is more congenial to me, not least because the measures of student outcomes he discusses are college-wide and harder to turn into clubs to be used to beat individual faculty with. A risk in student learning outcomes is that the administration will settle on some somewhat arbitrary measures and then use them as part of tenure/promotion/raise decisions, the way student evaluations are used now; which would pretty much force faculty to teach to the test, whatever the test was. Evaluating colleges by how they improve critical thinking skills would actually seem to prevent that, which I like.)

Carey's article via Steve Benen. Elsewhere at the Washington Monthly blog, Hilzoy makes an excellent point: Free school breakfasts could help learning a lot. This year I was teaching while fasting on Yom Kippur, and I was already pretty distracted at 12:30, when I had basically only skipped breakfast. And I'm a grownup. Hard to imagine how hunger would influence a kid trying to learn. Also, Hilzoy says this pretty quickly, but the universality is critical, because of the cruelty of means testing. (Which the Rawlsian Hilzoy certainly knows and no doubt decided not to make a big deal of here.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 08:02 AM | Comments (0)