Wednesday, July 08, 2015

A Trend I Never Thought I’d See

Between getting older and having a teenage son, I’m gaining a new perspective on trends.  The Boy complained yesterday about a meme that “has been around forever -- it’s two months old, at least!”  I’ve had library books longer than that.  

I’ve shown him some of my pictures from the 80’s, to hilarity all around.  (“Nice hair, Dad!”)  He seemed surprised when I didn’t rise to a spirited defense of 80’s pop; try as I might, I just can’t work up a lather defending the honor of Wang Chung.  Whether everybody in fact wang chungs tonight is none of my concern.

That said, I’m seeing a trend of late that I never thought I’d see.  Tuition is being frozen in some states, and, in others, actually reduced.

In my experience, “tuition” and “cut” don’t occur in the same sentence.  “Budget” and “cut” do, or “appropriation” and “cut.”  But “tuition” and “cut” is new.

Even more surprising, the trend seems to have bipartisan support.  Oregon and Tennessee have done variations on “free,” and now Washington and Minnesota are doing tuition cuts.  Even Ohio is doing a two-year tuition freeze.

In the words of the single best band of the 80’s, color me impressed.  

As someone who has spent years trying to work within community college budgets, I’m naturally concerned about the sustainability of the trend.  To the extent that it relies on solid commitments by states and realistic projections of underlying cost increases, I’m all for it.  To the extent that it’s a sort of political mood swing, I’m concerned about colleges’ ability to weather the next recession; experience suggests that tuition controls will last longer than appropriation increases will.  And to the extent that it forces community colleges to be even more austere than they already are, I’m alarmed.  

Still, the direction is encouraging, at least in the short term.  

In younger days -- see the earlier reference to hair -- I used to think that sticker price didn’t matter much, as long as the aid was there.  And there’s a sense in which that’s true.  But both politicians and much of the public never really understood the high-tuition, high-aid model.  (To be fair, they weren’t always wrong.)  If behavioral economics has taught us anything, it’s that certain kinds of gimmicks actually work.  Headlines like “Tuition Cut!” can break through the noise and resonate with people in ways that, say, increases to Pell grants don’t.  And I say that as a HUGE fan of increases to Pell grants.  I see the simple clarity of a tuition freeze or cut as the higher ed equivalent of “No payments for 90 days!”  It may not be optimally efficient, but if it works, it works.  And we need whatever public support we can get.

In my perfect world, community and public colleges will use the relative respite from cuts to implement changes to their operations to make them more effective and sustainable, so when the next storm comes -- and it will -- we’ll be better prepared.  

I’d also like to see certain states -- not naming any names here -- take lessons from Ohio, Tennessee, Oregon, Washington, and Minnesota.  A little peer pressure isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  If we can switch the ‘default’ setting from tuition increases to tuition cuts, and do it without taking it out of the hides of the staff, well, that would be the most positive trend in quite a while.

The Boy’s memory of trends may be shallow, but mine is deep enough to withhold judgment on whether this is the dawn of a new normal, or the policy version of a one-hit wonder.  But I will say it’s one of the most hopeful developments I’ve seen in years.  Kudos to the states taking the lead.  With luck, this trend might just outlast the long-lost mullet.