Politics & Policy

Affording the Dream

The trouble with tuition.

There is one very undreamy constituent of the American dream, and that is the high cost of college education. The marketplace rule is that competition reduces prices. Well, the marketplace rule is hogwash when it comes to higher education. The explanations for this are multifarious. 1) More Americans, especially in the two decades after the war, decided to attend college, making for great rises in demand. 2) Choice colleges are hotly competed for, giving them a relative immunity to market pressures. 3) Ever since the fifties, teachers have been demanding a living wage. 4) College perquisites increased; academic offerings for students with exotic interests are understandable, but some college administrators think themselves delinquent if they do not offer a course in jujitsu.

The free marketeer is tempted to address the problem with the kind of fatalistic glibness that makes us so offensive to so many fellow citizens. He will say: So what? There is the demand — a lot of students desiring a lot of things. And there is the supply — 4,140 colleges and universities nationwide. Obviously these colleges would not survive if the money needed to operate them were not provided. So what we have arrived at is an amalgam of contributors to the students’ needs.

Primary, of course, are parents. Those who have it will put up cash. Those who do not will take out another mortgage on their house. Next in line are the students themselves. Many begin their contributions by undertaking school service: waiting on tables, mowing lawns, tutoring students with special problems. Alumni join in by subsidizing scholarships.

Then there are the institutions that make loans. Loans, at the most basic level, are made to the individual by the bank, with some reference to collateral. All that the student can offer is future payments — when he has graduated and begins to accumulate a little surplus.

But quickly there came interventions in the lender-borrower pairing. Colleges themselves, desiring to increase enrollment, made loans, some of them at sharply reduced interest.

Inevitably, the centripetal organ moved in. We got loans, in the sixties, financed by the federal government, chasing after parity with Soviet astronauts. These federal loans grew to serve the general purpose of higher education. Some sort of college aid became a part of the welfare state. If society desires education — acknowledging this in free schooling for the first twelve grades — why is it unreasonable to finance a supplementary four years of schooling?

The refinements of basic economic factors, engaged in to deal with the problem of high costs, require strenuous improvisations. Colleges that extend scholarships or give out loans are traditionally influenced by the factor of family wealth — and why not? But introduce apparently extraneous factors, and then see what happens. We have had a huge real-estate boom in many parts of the country, so that a middle-income family with a house that has doubled in value might find itself excluded from college aid on the grounds that the parents’ assets place them at an affluent level. But in the real world, the rise in the “value” of a house is a most awfully impalpable thing. You cannot profitably sell the house in Greenwich, Connecticut, intending to finance college tuition, unless you are prepared to move to South Dakota. Increases in the value of houses in prime real-estate markets do only two things for the owner: increase his property taxes and increase his heirs’ estate taxes. So . . . a group of colleges have agreed to promote the protocol that the value of a petitioner’s house should be measured by the equity in the house, not the market value, in judging eligibility for financial aid, and that the value should not be set at more than 1.2 times the family’s income.

And so on and so on, myriad, resourceful nibblings at the terrible price of higher education — more exactly, of what people expect from higher education. The day will perhaps come when parents and students and bank managers and legislators will brace themselves in common cause. But how? By patronizing only colleges that forswear extraneous costs?

Mr. Hutchins, when he became president of the University of Chicago, declared that there would be no college-football team. A more modest step — and more palatable to the alumni — might be the one suggested by the conservative candidate for the Dartmouth board of trustees: Cut the size of the college administration and devote the resources to teaching.

© Universal Press Syndicate

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