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It’s sort of nice to be right, even when you wish you were wrong.

One of my consistent themes on this blog has been the “high cost of competition,” on public higher education institutions.

For example, in 2016 I wrote about my worries concerning College of Charleston’s chase for prestige, worried it would fall prey to what I observed during an earlier time at Clemson University, where a headlong campaign to reach the Top 20 public universities in the U.S. News & World ReportRankings resulted in not only some hinky administrative behavior, but also decreased access for first generation and less affluent students. 

Also in 2016 I predicted a “discounting death spiral” for less prestigious institutions who would ultimately have to compete on price in order to meet enrollment goals, setting them up for ever-shrinking totals of tuition revenue. 

What the heck, one more. Earlier this year, following a New America Education report outlining the confusing nature of financial aid award letters, I argued that institutions were disincentivized from providing those transparent letters because they were instead invested in putting the most attractive foot forward while simultaneously extracting maximum tuition dollars from each student. 

Essentially, financial aid offices were acting no differently than the average car salesperson who wants to “get you in the car” but is also quite probably hiding some cost you’re not savvy enough to know about.

Anyway, it’s not like I was alone in saying these things, and frankly, from my perspective as a contingent instructor at four different public institutions over more than 15 years, they seemed pretty obvious.

Thanks to two recently released reports from the Institute for Higher Education Policy and New America Education, we have a better idea exactly how costly competition has proven to be and who is paying the cost. 

Hint: both students and the broader public.

The report from New America Education, authored by Steven Burd found that the number of universities with an average net price (costs after all grant and scholarship aid is deducted from fees) above $10,000 increased from 34% of schools in 2010 to 52% in 2015. The median price increased by more than $1000 in inflation adjust dollars between 2010 and 2015.

Schools like William and Mary, UVA, and almost the entire Big 10 fall into the “Country Club Public Universities” category, having low net prices, but also having less than one-quarter of their enrolling students being Pell eligible.

Schools with very high net prices meaning 20% or fewer Pell-eligible students include the University of Pittsburgh (16% Pell-eligible, $21,851 net price), and the University of Alabama (19% Pell-eligible, $18,686 net price).

Interestingly, the University of Alabama has been held up as a success story for its ability to lure high academic achieving, full-tuition paying out-of-staters. They are supposedly a model for how to compete in the current ecosystem.

But the New America report makes the costs of this competition clear. If Alabama is a success, what does failure look like? The report demonstrates that the public higher education system is increasingly becoming less accessible and affordable for low-income students.

However, the current system also harms those who under most circumstances would otherwise be categorized as the “middle class.”

Consider the fate of so called ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, yet Employed) families who are eligible for no or very little Pell assistance face with these costs. As one illustration, fellow IHE blogger Matt Reed calculated that the Expected Family Contribution for his son’s tuition as determined by the FAFSA formula would be a larger monthly payment than his home mortgage

Steven Burd of New America sums of the vicious cycle which we’ve been operating under for the last couple of decades:

“Over the last 20 years, state disinvestment and institutional status-seeking have worked together, hand in hand, to encourage public colleges and universities to adopt the enrollment management tactics of their private college counterparts. For many of these schools, that has meant using their institutional aid dollars strategically in order to lure affluent out-of-state students to their campuses, rather than spend these funds on in-state students who can’t afford to go to college without the help.”

I saw this firsthand during my back-to-back stretches at Virginia Tech and then Clemson, two schools which are virtually identical in terms of institutional profile, and yet at Virginia Tech, I had students from South Carolina who were rejected from Clemson, and at Clemson, I had students from Virginia who weren’t admitted to VaTech because both institutions needed as much of that sweet, sweet out-of-state tuition as possible.

Honestly, it’s madness.

To my eye, Burd’s report seems purposefully studious in not apportioning blame between states and institutions, and it’s true, he highlights some schools which are flying in the face of these trends (like the University of Kentucky), but make no mistake, we know what is chicken, and which is egg, and which came first in this scenario.

State disinvestment is the inciting incident for this phenomenon. We can and should be critical of some of the institutional responses to that disinvestment, but this is the central problem. That disinvestment has led schools astray from their putative mission.

In the words of executive vice chancellor and provost of Cal-Berkeley, Carol Christ, “Colleges and universities are fundamentally in the business of enrolling students for tuition dollars.”If this is how institutions are required to operate, the current problems of access and affordability will only continue to get worse.

How anyone was convinced that competition would make public institutions, which are supposed to be oriented around access more efficient, rather than imposing additional costs should boggle the mind, but let’s not go back to “I told you so.”

The New America Ed report does not necessarily offer much hope in that the trend is decidedly moving in the wrong direction, but it does offer a clear understanding of the problem itself along with some recommendations as to how current money which goes towards Pell Grants could be reconfigured to general benefit.

I am also cheered that the report is coming out of New America Education, a shop which is overseen by Kevin Carey, who not long ago was one of the chief evangelists for “disruption” as outlined in his book, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere, and who once even went so far as to call universities an “illusion” as part of a campaign to undermine faith in public higher ed and to bolster the alternative providers Carey championed.

Outside of figures like Clayton Christensen -- who must play “disruption” at every appearance the same way Journey can’t escape a concert without an encore of “Don’t Stop Belevin’,” -- we’re not hearing nearly as much on the disruption front. Perhaps this is because most realize that “innovations” like MOOCs may have some targeted utility, but are unlikely to provide broad access to the kinds of educational experiences most undergraduates are likely to find meaningful.

Stephen Burd’s report takes it as a given that the mission of access and openness are central to our public institutions. This clearly is not a given, as judged against state and federal policy, but it’s a good place to start.

If we get back to that place, we may see some real progress.



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