Are Expensive State Schools Fair?

In the Room for Debate section of today’s New York Times Web site, six experts look at the cost of public higher education, particularly given the 32 percent fee increase at the University of California. As the introduction explains:

Student protesters said that the higher costs will make it even harder for middle class and poor students to go to college, and will widen the education gap between the haves and the have-nots. But the students at the 10-campus California system are, on average, from far wealthier backgrounds than the average household in the state. This gap is pronounced at other prominent public universities, like Michigan and Virginia.

The debaters bring up a number of interesting points. A common theme seemed to be that charging students from reasonably wealthy families high tuition was acceptable: they can afford it. The college will remain inexpensive for poor students.

“Why not increase U.C. fees even further and distribute that extra money to low-income students in the form of direct aid?” said Alfonso Trujillo, a California engineer who writes on education issues. “Charge each student what they can afford. Tuition should be scaled to the economic capacity of the individual undergraduate,” said former George Washington University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg.

As ULCA doctoral student Cindy Mosqueda points out, however, the truth is a more complicated:

The high-fee, high-aid model sounds nice in theory, but research shows that aid levels do not keep up with costs.

Earlier this year, students worried that the state could not pay the promised Cal Grants. The buying power of the Pell Grant has declined. Poor students — as I was (I had $0 expected family contribution) — will be saddled with debt and may forgo applying to a U.C. due to the cost.

It is a little difficult to verify the truth of this, the number of students who are scared off applying to a college due to the perception of its affordability. This is certainly a factor worth considering, especially since the aid given is so often the justification used for high college costs.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer