Tuesday, June 05, 2012

What Should a Year of College Cost?

What should a year of college cost?

We answer this question every single year, construing “should” in the narrow sense of “next year.”  But after several years of awful hand-wringing over annual increases caused primarily by the collapse of state support, we’re starting to try to get a longer-term handle on it.

A realistic answer to that question can’t be “zero,” since that’s a non-starter politically.  (I’m also not convinced that it would be the best answer on its own terms, but that’s another post.)  And anything along the lines of “the value of college defies a price tag” isn’t helpful.  I’m looking for an actual number of dollars per year. And that number should bear in mind the mission of a community college, which includes access for people who aren’t wealthy.

Without a target figure, we’re left with several unappealing options.

One option is to just go with last year’s number, plus a few percent.  That’s the default option, and it manages to annoy everybody.  With state support down, it doesn’t really allow for covering what we want to cover.  It means annual negative headlines.  It assumes that last year’s figure was essentially correct -- an assumption in its own right -- and over time, it starts to feel like a loss of agency.  Worse, extrapolating over time -- as in Monday’s post -- suggests that it’s eventually unsustainable.

Alternately, we could tie our figure to a group of peer institutions.  But that assumes that they have it right -- I suspect they don’t know any better than we do -- and “peer” is a relative term.  It also means that we’re always using last year’s figures.  Looking sideways at peers and backwards at previous years doesn’t seem like the best way to move forward.

Or we could just let the market settle the question.  Charge as much as we think we can get away with, and let students tell us with their feet if we overshoot.  As long as we don’t overshoot, this approach has the considerable virtue of not leaving money on the table.  Ideally, that would give us the money to restore some of the cuts of the last few years, and to invest in quality.  

But it would do violence to the “access” part of the mission of a community college, and it would build in a level of market instability that would make it impossible to make long-term commitments.  (There’s a reason that for-profit corporations don’t have tenure.)  It would also make it far easier for for-profit competitors to gain a foothold, since we’d lose a prime differentiator.  Given that “what the market will bear” is a moving target, we’d have to become nimble in ways that most incumbent employees would reject out of hand.

Alternately, we could do our best imitation of the Tea Party and try to cut our way to greatness.  If lower tuition is always better, and state support is dropping anyway, then the way forward is through sustained, aggressive cutting.  Who really needs a math department, anyway?

But that only makes sense if you assume, like the Tea Party, that all public spending is waste.  If you understand that much of it is actually beneficial, then this position quickly becomes insane.  As someone who believes strongly that public higher education is a social good, I reject this position out of hand.

We could tie the cost of college to a percentage of local family income levels.  That has the appeal of anchoring it in something concrete and external, and of carrying with it a built-in warning mechanism when it starts to get out of hand.  But local family income levels are a moving target, and they’re wildly disparate across the state.  They also don’t move nearly as quickly as many of our underlying costs do.  

We could look at projected future earnings of graduates, but that necessarily involves tremendous guesswork.  I’m just old enough to remember 401(k) calculators that assumed an annual 8 percent return.  The last decade hasn’t quite worked out that way.  Besides, if we took that as a guide, we’d have a powerful incentive to game the numbers by dropping programs in early childhood education and social work, and starting programs in, say, military contracting.  
The mission would get lost, quickly.

So since I don’t have a clear sense of a figure, I’ll ask my wise and worldly readers.  How much should a year of college cost?