NPR once went beyond headlines

Yeah, this song is on my mind as I consider the silliness of belief and the cost of higher ed.

I’m an innocent victim of a blinded alley
And I’m tired of all these soldiers here
No one speaks English, and everything’s broken, and my Stacys are soaking wet
To go waltzing Mathilda, waltzing Mathilda,
You’ll go waltzing Mathilda with me

–Tom Traubert’s Blues, Tom Waits

In the article, How Private Colleges Are Like Cheap Sushi, Anya Kamenetz writes about how private colleges discount tuition, through institutional grants in the form of student aid. Using economic theory of anchors and signaling to explain this behavior, she points to private nonprofit colleges making these choices to compete in a crowded marketplace. Nowhere does she mention that public institutions engage in the same behavior, albeit to a lesser degree. At least with in-state students. More and more we see tuition discounting for out-of-state students using some of the dollars from the significantly higher tuition paid by non-residents.

Years ago, I was part of the Technical Review Panel that established the net price calculations for IPEDS. They were never targeted at just the privates. We spent more time talking about how these calculations would apply to public institutions than any other single topic at the meeting.

In failing to mention public institutions and the subsidies they receive, it is hard to take the article as little more than a puff piece. As I have argued before, when we look at actual spending for comparable institutions, much of the difference between public and private disappears. (By the way, many of the people who argue with me about this are the same that used to argue that all graduate programs were heavily subsidized by undergraduate programs – which is not really the case they realize now. Professional graduate programs are for-profit centers in public and private institutions.) Public institutions tend to rely more heavily on adjunct faculty…as long as they are in a geographic region where they are available.

I’m not interested in giving the private colleges a pass. I am interested though in seeing people recognize the that two sectors learn from each other and frequently borrow strategies. There is a lot of cross-pollination that takes place.

No institution has a right to survive. Especially not the those that are expensive and have low graduation rates with low measures of student success beyond completion. That should just as readily apply to institutions in all sectors. Survival is not a right.

Let’s also keep in mind that a primary culprit here is USED. Through the use and control of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the Department inserts itself into any discussion about price and cost through the resulting Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) – regardless of its accuracy. I have heard enough financial aid policy people, both in and out of the Department and the White House, refer to FAFSA as a “rationing tool” far more often than as an “accurate depiction of what a family can afford.”

Actually, I have never heard the latter.

We have a situation where a couple of generations of Americans were fortunate to have access to a free, or almost free, college graduation. This was possible because they were willfully ignorant of how tax dollars made this possible.

An awful lot of people went to college from groups that never had the opportunity previously. This was a good thing. Many students across all groups made good use of the experience. Many did not.

Now that the tax support for higher education has dramatically been reduced per student, college is seen to be much more expensive and not worth the cost – often based on the experiences and outcomes of those that did not make the best of their college experience.

I think the realities are this:

1) College (or any education) is never worth more or less what one puts into it. Yes, the credential has a value, but sooner or later, one can’t hide behind the credential and must demonstrate knowledge and ability to keep learning.

2) A large part of the costs of college have little to do with the specifics of education. Living expenses, for one, followed by athletics and building costs. Athletics is the only one that can possibly be eliminated and that seems unlikely.

3) Even if we trimmed, chopped, all the non-education costs, that would probably just allow a return to a more accurate cost of education. How? Colleges would stop relying so much on adjuncts. Adjuncts are nice additions to the faculty when they are local professionals with lots of experience to add value to a program. When they are used to provide a large portion of the education as contingent, part-time employees, it is just another form of an abusive system that does not serve the institution or its students well.

I realize nobody wants to pay anything for education. Unfortunately, that is just kind of stupid. Good education is always going to be fairly expensive because it involves lots of human interactions with humans with advanced education that was expensive to achieve. We can continue to work to find less expensive ways to deliver education content and to assess mastery, but engaging, coaching, and mentoring will probably not get cheaper. Unless it is something left in the hands of androids and robots, but then I start thinking about government or school contracts for these androids and it is doesn’t seem that will actually cost less.

We’ll be fighting over the cost of education, especially higher education, for decades, I expect. Until we reach the point where we recognize that we have reduced the costs and trimmed the unnecessary expenses to the point we can’t go any further, institutions will continue to be creative in pricing and aid strategies. Just as every other sector of the economy does.

I’ve rambled enough through this, and probably shouldn’t publish it, but what the hell. It is essentially an allergic reaction to something stupid.

And you can ask any sailor, and the keys from the jailor,
And the old men in wheelchairs know
And Mathilda’s the defendant, she killed about a hundred,
And she follows wherever you may go
Waltzing Mathilda, waltzing Mathilda,
You’ll go waltzing Mathilda with me

And it’s a battered old suitcase to a hotel someplace,
And a wound that will never heal
No prima donna, the perfume is on an

Old shirt that is stained with b lood and whiskey
And goodnight to the street sweepers, the night watchmen flame keepers
And goodnight to Mathilda, too

Be nice. It won't hurt either of us.

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