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Every so often I see a line that encapsulates something complicated so clearly that I actually stop reading and exhale. That happened a few days ago with a tweet from Lynn Tincher-Ladner, the CEO of Phi Theta Kappa. She wrote,

“At four-year colleges, the higher the tuition, the higher the completion rates. For community colleges, the opposite is true.”

I haven’t seen the data behind this; if anyone has, I’d love a link.

The phrasing struck me as strongly as it did, I think, because it suggests that in talking about college costs, we’re largely looking at the wrong thing. The larger story is about public support and income stratification.

To see that, just look at the completion rates, tuition rates and family income levels at the Ivies. They can charge upward of $80,000 per year (including room and board), and their completion rates are in the 90s. They draw disproportionately from the most affluent families. Yes, some of them offer generous financial aid to the lower-income students they admit, but they don’t admit many. Between massive endowments, high tuition revenue and students with uncommonly high social capital, they’re able to get excellent outcomes even while charging more than the median American family’s annual income.

The typical community college, by contrast, has a headline graduation rate in the 20s, despite charging about a 10th of the tuition that the Ivies do. (In some cases, they don’t charge tuition at all.) The family income distribution at most community colleges is much more reflective of the country as a whole; at some colleges, a solid majority of the student body receives Pell Grants.

Putting the two sectors next to each other makes the “students are being priced out” narrative a lot more complicated. The ones being priced out are generally the ones at the lowest-cost institutions. In that light, it’s not really about prices. It’s about the resources available to students, both within the institution and within their families.

Student loan default rates tell a similar story. The highest default rates are among the students with the lowest balances. Those are usually students who dropped out and walked away without a credential. The ones who borrowed a lot for medical school are much more likely to be able to pay it back.

One possible response to Tincher-Ladner’s observation would be for community colleges to raise their tuition substantially. In fact, many states have de facto decided to try that by skimping on the public operating funding that was supposed to help keep tuition low. But raising tuition even higher on students who are already strapped is unlikely to end well. If my college were to double its tuition, I’d expect to see enrollment drop dramatically, with the largest drops coming from the most economically vulnerable students. The key variable is the economic vulnerability of students.

Seen in this light, conflating concerns about affordability with concerns about absolute tuition levels is bound to lead to basic mistakes. Yes, of course, making tuition free is helpful. But that’s only one part of the picture. Institutions need the resources to help students succeed, and students (and their families) need the resources to allow them to redirect time from paid work to academic study. For those with ample capital, even Ivy-level tuition isn’t a deal breaker. For those with very little, even free tuition can be a struggle.

It’s about affordability, not prices. If it were the other way around, the Ivies would have some of the lowest graduation rates in the country.

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