Should college be free?
Photo: Kelly Martin. Source: Wikipedia
There is a move, politically, to make college less expensive. And with tuition and fees at private institutions running $60-70 thousand per year, it’s understandable why people get concerned: most of us don’t have half a million dollars just lying around to pay for our kids’ college. Moreover, tuitions that high make the idea of “working your way through school” seem ridiculous. Twenty hours per week at a work-study job pays for less than 20% of a private school.
The college’s usually respond by saying that no one really pays full freight – most of their students get some kind of financial aid. But that often works out to be one more progressive income tax and a penalty on prudence. In the “Expected Family Contribution” formula that financial aid offices use, they calculate that every penny of a student’s accumulated savings will go towards their school’s expenses. And when the schools evaluate the parent’s income, they don’t use taxable income. They use our adjust gross income – line 37 on Form 1040. No deductions are allowed when colleges come calling.
Source: St. Louis Fed
One approach to all this expense and complexity is to chuck the whole thing out, and make college free for everyone – or at least, expand public funding to middle-class families. That’s what New York is doing with its Excelsior Scholarship, which can pay up to $26,000 of tuition per year for public college – if the student stays in New York after graduating. Families that earn less than $100,000 per year are eligible.
This is a bad idea. It layers more complexity onto an already Byzantine system. Completing the FAFSA every year – for families that have students in college – ranks right up there with doing taxes as an unpleasant, tooth-pulling experience. But unlike taxes, the FAFSA calculations are shrouded in secrecy. Presumably, the Excelsior Scholarship will rely on FAFSA forms to determine eligibility.
Also, this approach creates perverse incentives. State schools will now receive applications from more and more students, making them more selective. That may help them in the US News college rankings, but it won’t help poorer students, who are often less well-prepared. They usually can’t afford SAT tutoring services. In addition, mid-range private colleges will now have to compete with “free” public schools. This can push them into a “death spiral” of higher tuition and lower enrollment. We know where that ends: bankruptcy and fewer educational choices. Public funding ends up crowding out private educational diversity.
Really? Source: US News
In addition, there is an endowment effect in education. Not the school’s endowments: we’d all like to have a large asset base to pay some of our operating expenses! No, kids have an endowment effect when they pay to go to school. Students who work to pay even a small percentage of their college expenses are more likely to work hard at their studies and graduate. As the cost of attending college falls to zero, so does the perceived cost of dropping out. But when you put your own cash into your own education, you’re more likely to finish that degree. People value what they pay for.
There’s a network effect where we all benefit from a better-educated populace. But the folks who receive an advanced education benefit the most, in the form or higher lifetime earnings. Why shouldn’t they have some skin in the game?
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA