Thursday, December 14, 2006


What We Talk About When We Talk About Tuition

(with apologies to Raymond Carver)

There was a bit of a dustup in webland this week in the wake of an unsurprising New York Times article that showed that many consumers take the sticker price of a college as a gauge of its quality. Apparently, some of the midlevel-but-aspiring colleges have figured out that they can raise their applicant yield by raising their tuition. It's a variation on what used to be called the “Chivas Regal” effect, in which one brand of liquor found that it could improve sales by raising its price, since consumers assumed that anything expensive must be good.

Community colleges have known this for years, since we're on the bad end of it. We keep our tuition artificially low and our amenities relatively spare, so we can be accessible to folks without much money. One perverse result is that many of the more affluent high school grads look down their noses at us. Groucho Marx' line about never joining a club that would accept him as a member applies to us.

It's annoying on many levels. Most obviously, low tuition leads to chronic shortages of operating funds, which lead inevitably to making choices about staffing, programs, outreach, and the like that we'd rather not make. It's also demoralizing when cc's are the punchline of jokes, when students make cracks about getting out to go to a “real college,” or when I see some of the choices that more affluent institutions are able to make and still survive. (A margin for error! What a concept! Must be nice!)

It's also, at bottom, false.

Although we have a few students for whom the Harvards of the world were real options, and I'm always happy to get those students, the fact of it is that most of our students – if they would have gone elsewhere at all – would have gone to nothing-special four-year colleges. They would have paid a great deal more for the privilege, but it's not clear to me that an average student with middling motivation and a fuzzy sense of direction is better off spending 10k for an adjunct at Midtier State (or 40k for an adjunct at St. So-So) than spending 3k for a full professor at a cc. I just don't see it.

When I got my doctorate at Flagship State, I couldn't help but notice how dreary and mediocre the undergraduate experience there was. Intro classes were 300 students a pop, with 'recitation' sections staffed by 23 year old grad students who were only beginning to think of themselves as teachers, and who made all manner of rookie mistakes on their not-much-younger charges. Professors advised us, as grad students, to put as little energy as possible into teaching, since anything above the bare minimum was effort that should have gone into research. For this, the undergrads were charged roughly quadruple what they would have been charged at the local cc, where intro classes top out at 30-35 and tenured professors teach intro sections.

Why would the undergrads accept such a lousy deal?

I'm guessing it's a combination of snob appeal, the lure of dorm life (par-tay!), the siren call of what economists call 'assortative mating,' and a sense that that's just what you do. I can remember my friends and I in high school regarding the local cc as a place to take driver's ed and not much else. “Winding up” at a cc was taken as a sign of failure. From what I've seen, that attitude is still pretty prevalent. It's entirely independent of what actually happens in the classroom.

A thought experiment for my wise and generous readers: assuming no demagogic behavior from local and/or state politicians, what do you suppose would happen if cc's moved from an 'everyday low prices' strategy to a 'high price, high aid' strategy?

This set of issues boggles my mind, too. Recently, my SLAC put through a tuition increase for no other reason than to appear to cost as much as schools snobbier than us. But of course virtually NO student PAYS that amount. In fact, my own snooty undergrad education cost LESS for me than the state flagship would have.

Gah. I've got no answers, I'm just sharing in the muddle-ment.
Raising tuition for prestige strikes me as an only temporarily successful strategy. But given the large number of students studying in some form of higher education, it's probably more successful that I think.

I've sometimes thought that 2 years of a CC should be offered to all and required of any who pursue a 4-year degree, but short of such a fundamental change--which would have to be national in scope--I don't think raising tuition is going to help. Until a radical change occurs, there will always be confusion about and bias against CCs.

On big flagship schools: the percentage of TA instruction matters a lot. There's a big difference between places where TAs teach 20% of undergraduate contact hours and 30%. At my (at the time) 4th-largest-in-the-country flagship school, I had only four TAs with full-course responsibility (in intro and intermediate foreign language in two different languages; I had a prof for 4th semester in one of them) and only 6 others (for recitation sections). I had only four classes with more than 50 students and the vast majority had 20 or less. Anecdotal and likely no longer the case (one semester's in-state tuition cost $1000 then--I could pay for it with my own salary from a 15-hour/week job), but true.

At the SLAC where I now teach, we often hire assistant profs in the sciences with little or no teaching experience, so issues with teacher experience at big flagship schools might be misleading--surely you hire one or two beginning teachers at your CC, and surely experience isn't the only requirement of a great teacher . . . .
Perhaps it is only marketing, but is it mandated that community colleges call themselves "community"?

Why not drop the first term, raise tuition and offer need-based scholarships? Then they would be a "college."

Is it in the bylaws or something to have "community" in the name?
I think there probably would be a real advantage to pricing onesself significantly above the average for CCs in ones region, and to actively promote yourself as a `deluxe' CC; there likely really is a market for that in many areas.

And (eventually) it wouldn't be an empty gesture; as you've mentioned, with additional money there are things one could genuinely do better -- although if you make the tuition rise truly revenue neutral by increasing aid, then it becomes more complicated. And of course if tuition goes up, even in a revenue neutral way, than it makes cutting your funding an easy choice for lawmakers...

Playing with tuition is of course unlikely to deal with the real issues -- the unjustified stigmatizing of CCs as a class of educational institutions, and more generally the focus on prestige/status symbols rather than actual educational outcomes, but how you'd fix that is beyond me.
The notion that college is about education is a bit of a fiction, isn't it? College is about getting on a track that leads to satisfying employment. If you have to learn something to do that, learn it (nursing comes to mind). If you only need a credential, then be sure you don't flunk out, and build a good-looking transcript.

This model suggests that the most important thing that any college will provide is a network--among academics, out to the private sector, out to graduate schools, and among student-peers after they leave the college. That's why the Ivys can charge so much. Their networks lead to the highest levels of elite America, and the money spent on high tuition to attend them is well spent.

This phenomenon suggests that the way to alter the perception of CCs is to nurture the networks.
My undergraduate experience really was quite different from the standard cc/mid-state/st. somewhere drill--but since the point of your post was to compare it to the average and not the exception, I will spare you the praises. However, it did permanently sour me to the notion that college is about "satisfying employment," ensuring my poverty as a teacher/grad student in liberal art-ish perpetuity.

One big advantage of the four-year college that you didn't mention was that it is, in fact, four years; a BA is very different from an associate's degree, or a 2-year-and-transfer set-up. All of the community colleges in my area (and there are quite a few) operate on this model, so it does make sense to go to just one school if you want/need a BA.

Looking in my crystal ball, it seems like raising the prices for prestige's sake would indeed attract just the sort of snobbish types you described. This would certainly help with the financial pinch, since most of them would be able to pay slightly more than current tuition. However, I think it would drive away the genuinely hard-up, who pin their hopes on the cc. My area is very immigrant-heavy, and I know many of them would be terminally discouraged by a high price tag, even if the college offered 100% aid to everyone. Besides, I think the whole you-don't-have-to-pay-what-something -actually-costs thing that dominates the discussion about paying for college is a bit bizarre, anyway.
We have private community colleges in this area who work on the high price / high aid model. They vary in their quality from frighteningly bad to acceptable. There is no incentive for them to offer rigorous programs because that would drive away their primary source of income - more students.

I think raising fees is probably inevitable but I wish tax payers would get off their butts and subsidize things - in my area especially, someone needs to make about $35 per hour to afford a 2 bedroom apartment. JC programs are vital for the health of our community in that they allow those who would never survive a 4 year degree to get jobs that in fact pay $35 per hour and fill a vital community need (nurses and plumbers come to mind.)
Raising tuition would likely drive away a lot of students who are taking classes just for enrichment.

It would also drive away a lot of students who would have been able to get scholarships but know it. Many community college students aren't savvy in the ways of education and wouldn't realize how to work with the system.

-- Cardinal Fang
Name recognition is another reason to plunk down 5x more for your undergraduate experience. At my school, the education is pretty good, but the culture is such that students are pretty lazy. But what do they care if they don't get As? The brand name of this school and access to the alumni network is what they're here for, and probably many of them think it's worth it.
"The notion that college is about education is a bit of a fiction, isn't it?"

Only to bean-counters (both bean-counting students and bean-counting administrators).
In 1965, the state of Florida created a CC/Uni system where the vast majority of undergrads were required to start at a CC. Only 1000 freshmen were allowed (i.e. paid for by the legislature) at FSU and UF, and some state universities had zero students before the junior year. It worked, but had weaknesses in areas where sophomores need to be taking upper level classes, so it is quite different today.

Tuition change is not practical because ours is set by the legislature.

The bias would not change with a name change. It can only change with public relations based on fact, and even that is a tough path. I feed some *very* good engineers into a nearby Enormous State University. I get a lot of the usual CC students (ex-military, women from a rural area, career changers), who have a higher motivation level than the kids who picked a school for its football team. That, and my entire class is smaller than a "recitation" at the ESU.

So what happens when one ESU eng prof asks one from another area to join him for a presentation to our Engineering Club? "Why would we want them?" Right. He rattled off the names of a half dozen students. "Oh, those are some of our best students." But the guy still did not come to the meeting. It is a work in progress.
At my grad institution here, the teaching is very often "the bare minimum", because there is little incentive to teach well. The undergrads are, without question, paying $200K for a meal ticket via the alumni club.

I was under the impression that if one transfers from a CC, one gets a BA at the end of it all the same?

I do think that raising CC prices steeply, even with increased aid, would decrease access both for hobbyists (I'd love to learn welding someday) and for people like my relative who took four semesters of medical Spanish at the CC. I know many immigrants who've trained to be nurse's aides, etc., who would be shut out or intimidated by a high-price system. I'm willing to believe it would attract the snobbish types more, but at the expense of many of the older and/or more highly motivated students.
CC's are valuable as they are for several reasons.

Value and quality:
I think that the difference is that people using the benefits of a CC education often realize what concrete benefits they are there for, even if they may mock it at the same time. Dental, programming, languages, math, physics -- a plethora of topics, often times taught by faculty who also teach at a nearby state school. Just because we called it clown college didn't mean we didn't realize the value of getting cal 3, often from the same prof who would have taught it at the local university, for 1/3 of the price (or less, given the tuition ramp up since I graduated).

Time to degree:
Rachel's comment is interesting. As I see it, the 4-year degree going the way of the dodo in many places such as my alma mater, a border town commuter school. In many places, 4 years to degree is neither the dominant time to degree, nor is it always feasible without serious burnout or risk to quality of education.

My alma mater requires three semesters worth of nothing but core classes between the requirements mandated by the state and those of the system the school is part of. I was shocked when I got to my grad institution, because people generally finish in 4 years unless study abroad didn't provide enough transfer credit.

A lot of the students I knew took CC classes both because of the value and because it enabled them to reduce the time it took to complete a degree by transferring classes that otherwise wouldn't fit into their schedule to a 4 year school.

Service to non-traditional college students:
The fundamental reason the big name schools are on top is their long history and demonstrated quality of output: national leaders, business leaders, important thinkers, scientists, etc. Unfortunately, this is inextricably bound up in their heritage of educating affluent white people. Community colleges and state schools (such as land grant colleges) are educational institutions created to serve their communities, not just to educate the next generation of patricians, are the ones struggling. In fact, it pisses me off when schools forget that and go chasing the glory of being the next Harvard instead of celebrating and developing what they are, which is something that Harvard (or any of the Ivies, or really any other school at all) could never be.
I'm from Quebec, which has a slightly different educational system than anywhere else in North America. The relevant fact is that one graduates from high school after grade 11. Quebec then has a class of schools called CEGEPs (College d'enseignment general et professionel). There are two kinds of CEGEP programmes: two-year pre-university programmes, and three-year technician programmes (which lead to a job). A Bachelor's degree then takes three years after CEGEP.

CEGEP faculty are not tenured in the traditional sense, but there are usually strong unions, as far as I know. In principle, the minimum requirement for being a CEGEP teacher is a bachelor's degree, but many have masters' degrees or PhDs. There are some funding possibilities for CEGEP teachers who would like to do some research, but (except for the small number of teachers who are finishing their PhDs) in general I believe that they don't do much research.

CEGEPs don't usually cost a lot of money to attend. I went to a 'private' CEGEP, but even so my tuition was $2k/year. Although this seemed like a lot at the time, it really doesn't compare to US schools.

Since everyone goes to a CEGEP, they don't lose out so much by being considered poorer cousins. The government has always wanted to get more students into the 3-year technical programmes, but more than half of CEGEP students go to the pre-university programmes.

I wouldn't want to teach at a CEGEP myself, especially in computer science, because the range of courses that one can teach in CS is pretty limited (and because I'd like to do research). I think the situation would be different for humanities profs, though, because they would have a lot more freedom in terms of course content.
I often think my CC is too affordable, and in my field we have no lack of students. That said raising tuition still wouldn't attract the best and brightest, but it would hold off more of the deadbeats. The ones that are enrolled in a CC only so they can, as full-time students, stay on their parent's health insurance. So yes hike the tuition a bit, but create some performance based scholarships to keep the good students. Would CC boards be friendlier to small tuition hikes than changes to open enrollment policies?
I applied my 210 publications, presentations, and broadcasts in the field, plus 20 years in the Space Program, to teaching Astronomy at a Community College. It was fun for all 100+ students (2 lecture sessions, 1 lab) and me.

But correct me if I'm wrong: of all Americans who ever won a Nobel Prize, only one came from the faculty of a Community College.

If so, was that a matter of top universities hiring all the top talent, or bias against Community Colleges?

-- Prof. Jonathan Vos Post
plam -- thanks for the description of the Quebec system! It sounds a lot like a variation on the old "junior college" idea, which seems to be coming back through the back door.

I don't think 'high price, high aid' would be revenue-neutral, because many of our students could easily afford significantly higher tuition than we currently charge.

The point about hobbyists, drop-ins, and the less-savvy being deterred by a higher sticker price is probably true, and cause for real concern. CC's understand our own mission as including access for those who otherwise couldn't attend college, which, by definition, includes those who least understand the system. If a high sticker price keeps the working poor from even trying to get in, everybody loses.

We're starting to work on nurturing our alumni networks. I agree that there's much more work to be done there.

The Florida system sounds interesting. I think they also have some cc's that offer four-year degrees, which my state doesn't allow. I'll have to look into that.

Merit scholarships are a great idea, and I'm all for them. To the extent that they offset the higher sticker price and allow the talented-but-lower-income student a shot at a real education, everybody wins. The economists will object that they mostly go to people who don't need them, but that doesn't bother me so much; the same is true of athletic scholarships, and I'd much rather reward academic achievement than a good jump shot.
An article appeared in a recent issue of Forbes that addresses the question, albeit indirectly:

School For Scandal

They'll probably seal this off in their pay-for-access archive at some point, so I'll reproduce it here for everyone's convenience.

There is a chart included in the original copy worth seeing.

Financial Strategy
School For Scandal
A. Gary Shilling 12.25.06, 12:00 AM ET

College costs of $50,000 a year? That prospect seemed extreme when I wrote about soaring higher education bills in a 1989 column. Then, tuition and fees at private four-year colleges averaged $20,000 in 2006 dollars. But 17 years later the tab has jumped 50% in inflation-adjusted terms, to $30,000 (see chart).

One reason for exploding prices: The schools can get away with it. Demand exceeds supply at high-end private schools. Americans have always associated education with career success, and college grads earn 45% more than high school grads.

Many believe that college educations, not the innate talents of students, give rise to this earnings disparity. This presumption is unproven, and causality may run the other way. Also, the prestige of American institutions attracts hordes of foreign students. The irrefutable proof of excess demand is that universities pay legions of employees to turn down perfectly good business. Many first-tier universities admit only one of ten applicants.

The better schools assess only the most prosperous customers the full amount. Then they give part of that money to poorer families to yield their desired student body mixes. This is price discrimination, pure and simple. In this environment college presidents worry more about catching up and keeping up than about costs. Second-tier schools strive to improve faculty salaries and campus infrastructure (labs, dorms, libraries) to compete with the leaders. And the first rank is determined to stay ahead.

Will additional government aid or alumni giving curb the tuition spiral? No. If the Democrats get their way and Congress provides more federal support, that would only increase higher education demand and allow colleges to make offsetting tuition hikes. Fatter contributions to your alma mater's endowment will encourage more spending. Most institutions keep tuition and fees at a constant percentage of total income, including income from endowment. So more endowment means higher tuition.

Still, there are reasons to hope for an end to this plague of ever higher bills. One is increased competition by online education. For-profit institutions and lesser-known public universities are offering much cheaper virtual classrooms. And recall that not long ago the premium selling prices of prestigious retailers were immune to inroads from e-tailing. Not now.

Demand for higher ed may also moderate as parents revolt. Some have been forced to limit their family sizes in anticipation of crushing tuitions. In yesteryear many families skipped vacations to meet college costs; nowadays they substitute their houses' appreciation via home equity loans. But with the collapsing housing bubble, this well is running dry. Parents also realize that more money is buying a deteriorating product. A 2005 federally sponsored study finds declining literacy among the college educated. Many schools have abandoned core curriculums, along with any effort to influence their students' morals and ideals.

Many parents are shifting college costs to students, who leave undergraduate days with $20,000 of debt on average. New student loans through banks tripled to $17 billion from 2001--02 to 2005--06. Less-swanky private and public schools are fighting price discrimination with price discrimination by using merit aid to buy students from the first tier. Ivy league colleges discount only for need, but in 2003--04, 62% of public and 50% of private school grants were based on merit, up from 45% and 33% respectively ten years earlier. And these schools often provide just as good an education. Only 11% of large company chief executives had Ivy league diplomas in 2004, down from 16% in 1998.

Families, wondering whether the big-ticket schools are worth the money, should reflect on these nongraduates: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford and Bill Gates. Real wages of college grads fell 3.1% between 2000 and 2005. Supply-demand imbalances get corrected eventually. College education will be no exception.

A. Gary Shilling is president of A. Gary Shilling & Co., economic consultants and investment advisers. Visit his homepage at


I have heard it suggested that the Democrats' plan to make college tuition a permanent tax write-off will effectively green-light rapid increases in college costs at four-year institutions, especially the ones at the elite end of the scale. IMO this will likely cause a collateral benefit for community colleges.

I believe many students are increasingly reluctant to shoulder large debts for their college education.
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