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?