Tuition Politics

For three decades, tuition prices were kept low during gubernatorial election years, suggesting lawmakers' effect on college prices is more nakedly political than previously believed. 

August 12, 2014

Over much of the past half-century, state governors have helped keep public college tuition artificially low during gubernatorial election years, according to a new peer-reviewed article. But the study suggests more is at play than a governor's own career.

The study, published in the June issue of Empirical Economics by Kent State University Professor C. Lockwood Reynolds, found inflation-adjusted tuition is 1.5 percent lower in gubernatorial election years than in other years.

“If you’re a sitting governor up for re-election you would prefer that voters are receiving good signals about the state of the state,” Reynolds said. “And one of those might be tuition at a four-year institutions, because it’s announced pretty close to an election, and lots of people want to send their kids to college, and they probably don’t want to pay for it.”

For a natural control group, Reynolds, an economist, looked at private college tuition during the same period, from 1972 to 2003. It didn’t follow the same pattern as in-state tuition sticker prices at all. Instead, he found that private college tuition went up slightly more in gubernatorial election years than in non-election years, although the percentage increase was statistically insignificant.

Lockwood found evidence that governors were trying to help lawmakers in their political party rather than their own careers.

“It’s exactly when you know you’re going to win that governors seem to be doing this, which tends to flip around the traditional story that would be told about these things,” Reynolds said.

He concluded governors might be trying to pass political goodwill to state legislative candidates in an effort to expand party control of the state legislature.

Reynolds found the tuition was held down more if the governor had wide margin of victory in the election. Tuition was also held down in gubernatorial election years even if the incumbent governor wasn’t running again.

“If you are a popular governor you might have a little bit more power to effect change in ways you want,” Reynolds said.

He also found that tuition suppression efforts were stronger if there were more competitive legislative races in districts that would be most likely to respond to lower tuition -- namely legislative districts with a younger population and those with a college.

The pattern held true for both Republican and Democrat governors.    

Michael K. McLendon, a professor of higher education policy and leadership at Southern Methodist University who has studied the interplay of politics and higher ed, called Reynolds’s paper a “a meticulous and creative undertaking.”

“Fifteen years ago, observers often asserted that higher education somehow was above the political fray – that economic and demographic conditions of states and characteristics of campuses alone drove tuition levels or state funding trends or the adoption of new kinds of financing and accountability policies,” he said in an email. “Today, numerous studies exist documenting the impacts of election cycles, gubernatorial leadership, and legislative representation on state and campus behavior.”

Reynolds’s paper is distinct in that it claims that governors “may be using their influence over tuition-setting in ways that are even more strategic and nakedly political than is commonly believed,” McLendon said.

The findings mirror a growing body of research into public spending during election years. These “political budget cycles” have been found repeatedly inside the United States and in other countries around the world.

Reynolds argues that tuition is a clear target for manipulation in election years. Governors have a great deal of say over the budget, of course, and they appoint many of the members of higher ed boards. Tuition rates are announced in the months before an election, and tuition increases are covered in the media. The reality of any increase hits home when students go to college in the fall, just weeks before the election, and the media covers that, too.

The study uses election data from 46 states between 1972 and 2003. Lockwood, who worked on the paper for five years before he began submitting it, said 2003 was the last year of complete data he had when he started on the paper. He expects the findings would be different following the recession.

“My guess is that the financial crisis outweighs everything,” he said.

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