• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Attack of the Asterisks

"Full need*"

November 4, 2019
 
 

I spent some time this weekend scrutinizing ways to save money on cellphone plans. You’d think it would be relatively straightforward, but I had to break out a spreadsheet because each plan comes with its own qualifiers, asterisks, bonuses and unknowns. “Plus taxes and fees” appeared a lot, meaning something different in nearly every case. Sales tax was clear enough: New Jersey charges a nice, round 6.625 percent. But some providers charge other taxes and fees on top of that, and some don’t. Add “switch and get a free(ish) phone, except for sales tax, and you get it back in installments” calculations, and varying levels of compatibility between our current phones and various carriers, and it got far more complicated than it should have been.

And that’s just for phones. Colleges are even worse.

A new report claims that the University of Chicago will be the first to hit $100,000 per year in total cost of attendance. Confusingly, the Hechinger Report account switches without notice between total cost of attendance and tuition, so I went to the U of Chicago website to see what it claimed. The bursar’s page lists tuition and fees for a full-time undergraduate at $19,214 per quarter, whatever that means. I’ll guess there are three quarters in a typical academic year, allowing for summers -- although who knows, really -- so that leads to $57,642 in tuition. The university’s financial aid page -- separate from the bursar’s office -- assumes that a full-time undergrad living on campus would hit a total of $80,277 per year.

According to the Census Bureau, the median household income in the United States in 2018 was $61,937. The astute reader will notice that the cost of a year at the U of Chicago exceeds the median annual household income by five figures.

As the parent of a college student, I can attest that we have expenses beyond covering our kid. For instance, we need food, clothing, shelter and transportation ourselves, not to mention saving for the next kid. To spare $80,000 per year would require having an after-tax household income well beyond that. (And at the current rate of increase, it should hit $100,000 per year by the time The Girl finishes college.) So you’d think that nearly everybody there would be on financial aid to some degree. But no: according to the Hechinger Report article, 37 percent of the students there pay full price, without aid. That means that 37 percent of the students come from families that can afford to pay $80,000 per year (and counting) out of pocket.

The article’s focus is elsewhere, but that number jumped off the screen for me. Over a third of the students there aren’t getting any financial aid, and the total cost of attendance is north of $80,000 per year and climbing. That’s remarkable.

If we want to believe that higher education is a meritocracy, then we have to be able to explain just how closely “merit” tracks household income. I very much doubt that 37 percent of the academically talented teenagers in America could come up with $80,000 per year out of pocket.

To be fair, the U of Chicago isn’t alone in this trend. Economic polarization manifests as academic polarization at any number of selective colleges and universities. And while that isn’t a new story in itself -- Williams was very much a rich kid’s school even when I was there -- it’s getting more pronounced. You can’t raise prices faster than inflation forever without pricing some folks out.

Expensive colleges often trumpet claims of meeting “full financial need,” but their definitions of “need” can be creative. And good luck getting quotes! As hard as comparing cellphone plans can be, at least I didn’t have to provide a FAFSA, a CSS profile or both. That’s a hell of a lot of fine print, and it changes every single year. The article notes that “high-cost, high-aid” plans scare away lower-income students, but I can’t blame them. Somehow, the aid never quite keeps up with the cost. They’re right to be suspicious.

In a nutshell, this is why quality, transparently affordable public higher education matters. It needs to be good enough to attract people with options, and the cost needs to be clear enough that people can understand it without doing advanced math. “Free college” programs, which are great, should have as few asterisks as possible. Folks who’ve been burned by asterisks before -- that is, most of us -- are right to be wary.

I don’t know if we’ll make a change with the phones or not. Luckily, at least in this case, the stakes are low enough that it doesn’t matter much. But with college, it matters quite a bit. When we identify “merit” with places that skew so heavily toward the wealthy, we send a pretty clear signal to everyone else. It’s no mystery that they hear it.

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