August 13 2012
Better Incentives—Not Wishful Thinking—Would Boost the Value of College
Vicki E. Alger
The Atlantic’s Jordan Weissmann says that upper middle-income families have themselves to blame for going into debt paying for increasingly expensive colleges. By “chasing prestige over price, the upper-middle class has also helped encourage the so-called arms race mentality among elite schools, which have piled on expensive amenities and services, along with administrators to run them. If semi-privileged families, and their academically accomplished children, were more cost conscious, you'd likely see somewhat different behavior from the colleges.”
Upper middle-income families typically make too much to qualify for aid and too little to pay for rising college prices out of pocket. So Weissmann is correct about the importance of being cost-conscious. However, he misses the mark when he predicts that colleges will be more affordable when “college administrators make an executive decision to slow down their rate hikes.”
If colleges were to become more self-disciplined about sky-rocketing prices, administrators would be the first ones out of a job—so they’re an unlikely source of fiscal sanity. My bet’s on parents and their children who are increasingly picking up more of their own college tabs. According to the Wall Street Journal:
…households with annual incomes of $94,535 to $205,335 saw the biggest jump in the percentage with student-loan debt from 2007 to 2010…Among this group, 25.6 percent had student-loan debt in 2010, up from 19.5 percent in 2007….The amount borrowed by upper-middle-income families, meanwhile, has soared. They owed an average of $32,869 in college loans in 2010, up from $26,639 in 2007, after adjusting for inflation…
The figures put this segment at the heart of a larger trend striking across income groups. More than three million households now owe at least $50,000 in student loans…
Many well-off families remain willing to dig deep for the most prestigious schools and should be able to handle higher debt loads. The upper-middle-income households now repaying student loans spend just 3.2 percent of their monthly incomes on debt payments…
Even after adjusting for inflation, the average sticker price of four-year colleges has more than doubled since 1985…Now there are signs that financial pressures are fostering a greater cost consciousness, even among wealthier families, and an increased focus on value.
Policy makers aren’t miracle workers, so parents dead set on putting themselves in the poorhouse for prestige will continue to do so—but insofar as those institutions receive public dollars, taxpayers have every right to stand up and say enough. Here’s how:
First, demand outcomes-based financing that requires postsecondary institutions to graduate students on time.
Second, require those institutions to provide information about how their graduates fare in the job market so students and their families can make informed choices—and avoid paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for degrees to get jobs that will pay only a fraction of they spent.
Third, institutions accepting public subsidies should be required to offered competency based programs that enable students to progress more quickly based on subject-area mastery, rather than arbitrary seat time.
Finally, make public subsidies contingent upon how much need-based financial aid institutions offer to promote better budgeting and cost-containment practices.
Better incentives—not wishful thinking—will help boost the value of college without blowing families, taxpayers, and states’ budgets.