What are we talking about when we talk about tuition fees


I would have expected the story of Elizabeth Redden in Inside higher education last week to generate more discussions than it did. So here is my contribution.

Drawing on research from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, she pointed out that community college enrollments nationwide fell 7.5 percent this fall compared to last fall. This was three times larger than the overall drop in undergraduate enrollment, at 2.5%. Meanwhile, graduate school enrollment has actually increased.

Obviously, I have a personal interest in community colleges. But leaving that aside for now, I was struck by how the data squarely contradicts the narrative that high tuition fees are the biggest barrier to enrollment. Community colleges are the cheapest area for most students. You would think that if tuition were the primary driver of enrollment changes, enrollment declines would be greatest in the more expensive places and smallest in the cheapest. But the opposite is closer to the truth.

It reminded me of the paradox of student loans and default rates. From the media coverage, one would think that the main factor in student loan defaults is high balances. In fact, the highest default rates are among students with never more than $ 5,000. The higher the total borrowings, the lower the default rate. This is publicly available information, but for some reason most higher education reviews ignore it.

In this case, the sector with the lowest tuition fees suffered the greatest decline. Meanwhile, higher education – the home of six-figure loan balances – has actually seen an increase.


It is almost as if the popular narrative completely misses the point.

To be fair, not all colleges have reported their data yet, and there is likely still some level of data fine-tuning left. But that’s not to explain, say, a 7.5% drop from a 7.2% drop. It could be anything. It’s too big a difference to explain it as a blip.

I guess the gap has a lot more to do with family income and wealth levels than it does with tuition fees. An already polarized economy is even more polarized with the pandemic. Those who were able to escape the recession through higher education did so; among those who might otherwise have attended community college, the most pressing survival needs came first.

In other words, when we talk about tuition fees, we are not really talking about tuition fees. We’re really talking about affordability, which depends a lot more on underlying income and wealth than on price. We are talking about the ability of students to support themselves (or be supported by their families) while pursuing certificates or diplomas. In a context of economic desperation, even free tuition fees can be excessive, due to the opportunity cost of giving up a livelihood job.

It is important to solve the problem correctly, because fixing the problem incorrectly will lead to solutions that miss the point. Having a community college freeze its tuition fees for a year or two won’t make a significant dent in affordability; if anything, given the budget cuts they would have to enact to offset, they could make affordability worse. Addressing affordability at a micro level begins with student supports, of the kind addressed by the #RealCollege campaign; on a macro scale, this requires policy measures to tackle worsening wealth inequalities. Yeah, I just said ‘political’, but there’s really no way around that. Philanthropy is great and I am grateful to all of our generous donors, but at the end of the day, nothing beats a solid middle class income. And these do not happen in nature. They are done on purpose or not at all.

Why are schools that cost $ 6,000 a year being cut more than schools that cost ten times as much? Because it is not primarily about schools.

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