What “Public Support” Buys

The rising cost of tuition, particularly at America’s public colleges, threatens to make higher education less attainable for poor and working class Americans. It’s not our fault, protest the state universities; the American taxpayers are simply less generous in their support for higher education than in the past. Is this true?

Well maybe not, suggests Andy Nash in a piece for the Daily Caller:

“They lie” was [Marty] Nemko’s response when I asked him about universities’ claims that a lack of sufficient public support is causing tuition to increase. Universities, he explained, are among the most powerful lobbies in America and they’ve managed to lobby for great increases in federal aid. And every time they are successful in lobbying for more financial aid, students are able to get more money, which allows universities to raise tuition.

“They are a business — higher ed must be a viewed as a business. Like any other business, what they are all about is making more money to do what they want to do, which in the case of universities primarily is to expand their bureaucracies and/or to do more research — 99 percent of which is of very, very little value.

I’ll leave aside the “little value” part here but Nemko, who writes about careers for U.S. News & World Report, among other things, perhaps has a point. The relationship between financial aid and tuition is a complicated one, but as long as public money for tuition exists only to “help offset” the tuition universities charge, what’s to stop universities from charging more tuition when they know students have access to more financial aid?

Certainly the incentive to spend efficiently seems curiously absent from the current system. Nash continues:

If you ask most people, it may initially seem counter-intuitive to expect that increased public sector support fuels tuition increases rather than keeps them in check. But that assumes that the universities are judiciously and wisely spending their finite resources on the education and needs of their tuition-paying undergraduates— education of a quality presumably commensurate with the costs.

The trouble with this is that saying “increased public sector support fuels tuition increases” implies that public support is the problem. That seems too simplistic to me. The real difficulty is that public support for financial aid is filtered through a convoluted, privatized credit system, which separates the amount the public pays for higher education pretty far from the actual instruction students obtain.

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