Tuition hikes and access to education

Given that I’m a grad student, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I kind of like postsecondary education.  It’s one of those things that I don’t mind paying higher taxes to support*, if I have to.  In marginal terms, improving access to higher ed is probably a good thing — especially as public school systems continue to suck harder and harder.  This idea — that everyone should have access to a university education** — has prompted an explosion of “reduce tuition fees” pins, buttons, and patches on the backpacks, lapels, and messenger bags of the trendy undergrads at my university.

Well, it makes sense, right?  Lower tuition, and more people will be able to afford to go (or send their kids) to university.  Now, by and large the folks wearing these pins are also opposed to creeping corporate influence on campus; apparently if a Coke machine appears in the hallway outside the history department’s main office, that department will come under its evil influence and hire Holocaust deniers to teach 20th Century European History or something.  I guess Coke machines are kind of like black trenchcoats that way.  Anyway, the question of where the funding lost from tuition cuts will come from remains largely unanswered: most of the people I’ve asked say “We should steal it from our grandchildren The government should provide more education funding”.

Student activists get really heated up about tuition levels, too.  If you think my example’s bad, consider that UC Berkeley student activists are rioting in protest of California’s proposed tuition hikes:

Students at the University of California’s flagship Berkeley campus took to the streets on Friday night, vandalizing university buildings, burning trash cans and clashing with police in the latest expression of frustration over cuts to the educational budget in California.

Let’s destroy some university buildings, so that the UC Berkeley budget office will have to shift resources from, say, scholarships and bursaries to physical plant repair.  Oh yeah, that’s helpful.  But it’s in a good cause:

“Nobody planned what happened, but anger erupts when it has been building for so long. That’s what happens,” said Callie Maidhof, a student activist at UC Berkeley. “[The regents] are effectively closing off the campus, making it less accessible, and those already here are getting less out of their education.”

Things aren’t looking good for California at this point in my blog post.  Assuming that lowering tuition is necessary to make higher ed accessible, an accessible UC system requires a bunch of money that California just does not have.  The state’s options seem to be either to slash education funding (as they’ve done) and accept a worse-off system, or keep spending money that isn’t there until the state implodes in a puff of debt and the taps shut off all at once.  (Or I guess they could try collectivizing the wineries.  Maybe that’d work.  Fuckin’ kulaks.)

Stephen Gordon, on the other hand, looks past the obvious assumption:

Gordon cites the work of Québécoise economist Valérie Vierstraete, who studied the effects of messing with Québec’s tuition rates in 2007.  You’ll have to read his post for the details, but essentially she found that tripling Québec’s (very low) tuition fees would decrease participation by 9.6% (based on a student population of 230,000), decrease government spending by $22,400,000, and increase university funding by $246,000,000.

Being a targeted-transfers type, Gordon suggests taking some of that $246,000,000 and turning it into scholarships for the 23,000 students who’d no longer be able to afford tuition.  He writes:

Although the link between [post-secondary education] participation and tuition fees is small, it is not zero:  tripling tuition fees would force out almost 10% of the students, particularly those from low-income families in small towns. But tripling tuition fees would also mean that universities would have an extra $246m: more than enough to pay the $108m it would cost to offer free tuition to those 22,000 students whose financial situation is too precarious to handle the tuition fee increase. And if they wanted, they could even afford the $88m cost of waiving fees for the 18,000 potential students who would have come if tuition were free. And there would still be $50m left over for other things, in addition to the $20m freed up in the provincial budget.

That’s all fairly specific to Québec in 2007.  This part isn’t:

In principle, a policy of raising tuition fees to the national average and then helping those who are in financial difficulty could have the same effect on post-secondary enrollment as a policy of free tuition. But while free tuition would involve increasing public expenditures by $150m, a policy of higher tuition could actually reduce public expenditures.

So by raising tuition, California could not only increase access to higher ed but also increase net university funding and decrease government spending.  Holy shit, Sparky, we may have a winner.

There’s just one problem: Many of these student activists would be able to afford higher tuition fees.  They just wouldn’t want to pay them.  The “Reduce tuition fees” is perfect: it improves access to education and just happens to give the activists more beer money.  Of course, that money has to come from somewhere, which is why the rioters in Berkeley want other people to suffer for their BAs in Literature.  This idea of transfers is fine and dandy when the money’s being transferred to them, but suggest that the activists themselves shoulder someone else’s burden and “From each according to his abilities” doesn’t sound so awesome any more.


* Although, of course, in anarchotopia universities will be fully private and tuition easily affordable as onerous government-imposed restrictions disappear blah blah blah read The Probability Broach already.

** Provided that they have the grades to get in; this is an important point that most of the “student activists” I’ve met conspicuously ignore.


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