Interesting article in today's NYT about college tuition. It seems that many people are more interested in attending a college with a higher tuition than in attending a college with a lower tuition -- or even the same college with a lower tuition. Places like Ursinus College in Pennsylvania -- a place where I interviewed for a job once upon a time -- have discovered that by raising tuition, they can increase the number of applicants and enrollments. They increased their enrollments by 35% over four years.

Now, most of this increase is illusory, because the colleges that have made this work end up increasing student financial aid by a comparable, or even greater, amount than than the tuition increase itself. But the strategy seems to be working. Among other things, the article reports on "a study asking students to choose between a college charging $20,000 and offering no aid, and one charging $30,000 and offering a $10,000 scholarship. Students chose the pricier option." I find this fascinating both because it's strictly speaking irrational (both institutions cost $20,000 out of pocket) and because of what it implies about what people are looking for in a college: some kind of prestige label? A demonstration of Veblen-eqsue "conspicuous consumption"? Or is this just another demonstration of the consumerist logic that more expensive products must be better, otherwise they wouldn't be so expensive? [This last is a very misleading claim, actually, since it implicitly rests on the idea that the market sets fair prices for goods…which is precisely what is not happening in this case, even though the belief that it is seems to be driving the consumption behavior in question.]

This little bit of "creative accounting" also says, distressingly, that a certain group of Americans seem to believe that higher education is the exclusive province of rich people. There's something inherently daunting about a tuition in the $30-$40,000 a year range, even if a not inconsiderable amount of that figure comes back to the student in the form of financial aid and other credits. And let's be honest: the vast majority of universities don't need to take in anywhere like that much in tuition. Yes, faculty salaries have to be paid and facilities management have to be paid for, but in many places the endowment and other categories of alumni giving are sufficient to cover a lot of those expenses. So why not cut tuition and just make the whole endeavor more affordable? Apparently, the reason is in no small part so that a university isn't perceived as offering a discount or cut-rate product.

I wonder what it is about education that prevents the "normal" logic of the market from working to drive prices down to the lowest level commensurate with continued operations. In almost any other market, if one could offer a quality product cheaper then one could reap major benefits until the other producers either lowered their prices or produced demonstrably better-quality products. Maybe it's the lack of a standard metric for evaluating the output of an educational process -- and by "lack" I mean less "regrettable absence" than "fortunate ambiguity about what it means to be educated." [I say "fortunate" because although I have my own ideas on that subject, ideas that revolve around a kind of critical disposition, I know that not everyone else in higher education shares them -- so the absence of a standard metric means that I can keep on making the case for my definition rather than having to conform to an established definition.] Or maybe it's the fact that so much of what one buys when attending a pricey, prestigious institution of higher education is the brand name rather than any particular educational experiences. Or maybe it's the fact that the market for higher education is divided into oligopolistic cliques, a situation that prevents genuinely open competition.

In any event, these kinds of perverse pricing strategies seem to work in the academic marketplace. But even if they work, they make me uneasy; raising tuition and simultaneously raising financial aid seems to me to be entirely too ethically questionable a move. I'd greatly prefer that colleges and universities develop better ways of communicating their distinctive take on the educational process, so that students and their parents could be informed shoppers (as it were). The question shouldn't be "how much are we paying for this?" but rather "what are we getting for our money?" There are obviously a lot of answers to that question, and I think it incumbent on a college or university to accurately set expectations up front when recruiting and publicizing. We should talk more about the experience, and let the tuition figures take care of themselves (which means: let tuition bills be set based on operating expenses and the like, and not on watching peer institutions and trying to charge as much as they charge). An institution of higher education ought to be more about embodying a vision than about turning a profit -- or about charging as much as it can get away with charging, just because it can. Better to attract students through an innovative program than through duplicitous tuition bills.

[It occurs to me that "ProfPTJ's Course Diaries" may not be an accurate or representative title for this blog, because I talk about more than just my course experiences here. Hmm. Have to give that some more thought.]

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