Wednesday, October 23, 2002

The WSJ post drew many responses on the discuss list at SCSU today. Kate Mooney in the accounting program pointed out that higher tuition at private schools may be driving more students to the public schools. True, I said, though public school tuition is going up faster than private school according to College Board. And later, I realized that if tuition at private schools was driving students into the public schools and if these students are from more affluent families, wouldn't our use of financial aid go down?

Several writers noted that the real cost of education has gone up, either as a share of the time a student works to pay for it or as the share of student loans in the financing of it. I agree, but that's reasonable if you accept the argument that the returns to education have increased in the last forty years. The WSJ (and College Board) cites the increase of $1 million in lifetime income for college degrees over high school education. It doesn't seem too much to ask that the individuals receiving that income bear a higher share of the cost, does it?

I think though that the professionals in our admissions office (thank you, Sarah!) have it mostly right. What is being observed here, and what I find inexplicable from the WSJ (they are supposed to be educated in economics, after all) is the effects of a good old recession. The National Bureau of Economic Research reported two weeks ago that "The U.S. economy continues to experience increases in production and income with no significant growth in employment." So where do these people go? Of course, to college! As the unemployed come back to school and retool their job skills, they will drive up enrollments and perhaps tuition, while availing themselves of loads of student loans and other financial aid. I really wonder if when we get more nontraditional students if financial aid goes up faster than tuition? I have no numbers but I suspect that's true.

As one might suspect as well, the post drew some flak from people upset that "tenured faculty living in ... leafy latte towns" are being unfairly characterized as driving up tuition costs. Mark Jaede from History puts it well:
Faculty and students are also taxpayers and working stiffs. Children of faculty and factory workers go to college. The false categorizations of the editorial invent enmities where there are in fact overlapping interests. They cast faculty as the sole privileged class. Most importantly, they overlook the fact that there are some folks far more privileged than latte-swiling professors who could afford to pony up a few more bucks for education.

If we as faculty at a public university are serious about funding education, we do need to take seriously issue of cost control. We do need to accept our fair share of the tax burden on our middle- and sometimes upper middle-class incomes. We do need to be mindful of the fact that our salaries come from the public purse.

We do _not_ need to accept caricature as argument.
Well no, unless you are writing an editorial. I think getting a little colorful in these things is rather the point, isn't it? I mean, isn't the WSJ trying to sell papers?

But more to the point, and to partly agree with Prof. Jaede, let me offer that again the WSJ does a bad job in understanding economics. The point isn't cheapskate rich families unwilling to share with tenured faculty because there's a very tenuous link between taxes, faculty salaries and tuition. Tuition charged by public schools is going to depend on what the market can bear -- just as it does for private schools. The price one can charge for tuition is not a function of faculty salaries because what we charge is a function of the addtional (or marginal) cost of the educating another student. With a non-residential student population, the cost at SCSU is largely a congestion cost -- we get bigger classes, students have a harder time registering, parking sucks eggs, etc. To the extent we need more classes, we rush adjuncts into the breach -- and their costs are not what the WSJ is discussing. Tenured faculty salaries are, in the economists' parlance, inframarginal. They don't count in pricing -- they only drive the costs we hope the Legislature will pick up and pass along to taxpayers.

Now, I disagree with Prof. Jaede, who seems to think we should shame the rich into paying more for public education. Respecting people's right to property is my main tenet, and having more property in a market-based economy isn't a function of "privilege" as he states but of serving others better. But I will agree with him that casting tenured professors as the cause of higher taxes is just bad thinking. The root cause lies at the decision of Leviathan governments to provide those things which the private sector can do for itself, thankee. I suspect some at the WSJ would agree with that. Too bad they couldn't write clearer.