Would This Cut the Cost of Higher Education?

by Dave Schuler on March 21, 2014

I don’t think that Steve Cohen’s proposal from his New York Times op-ed for making college more affordable actually holds water. Here’s its kernel:

Since Congress controls the E.F.C. formula, it makes sense for political leaders who are serious about controlling college costs and student debt to start by making the E.F.C. more realistic. But tinkering with the E.F.C. formula won’t be sufficient because there are so many problems with it. For example, it doesn’t take into consideration geographic differences in cost-of-living, or the lack of liquidity in one’s home.

So let’s get serious instead. Congress and the president should drastically cut the E.F.C. — by around 75 percent, to reflect the fact that since 1980 tuition has risen at nearly five times the rate of the Consumer Price Index. Doing so would force colleges to construct financial aid packages without the artificial price supports of inflated contribution numbers — and make paying for college less agonizing.

“E. F. C.” stands for “expected family contribution, a number calculated based on a formula devised by Congress (which should be a warning signal right there). For Mr. Cohen’s proposal to work wouldn’t tuition need to be unrelated to costs and/or wouldn’t the size of funds available from which to award financial aid need to be much larger than they are now?

I gave my proposal for making college more affordable long ago. In digest form, I think the largest states should each close one of their failing state colleges (they all have them) and use the funds they’ve freed up to create a high quality degree-awarding online educational program at low or no cost, at least for residents of those states. The degree offered could be an associates or a bachelors degree.

There’s one thing that I wonder whether Mr. Cohen is aware of. Skyrocketing college tuitions aren’t new phenomena and predate the E. F. C., FAFSA, or any of the bureaucratic alphabet soup in today’s educational landscape. In the eight years between when I started college and when some of my grad student friends started the same college eight years previously the tuition at my price-y private university tripled. That was just about a half century ago and today’s tuition at the same school are an order of magnitude higher than when I started. The difference is that the increase in tuition has far outstripped the increase in wages.

What I think would actually happen if Mr. Cohen’s proposal were implemented is something that’s already under way: top schools would increasingly narrow their admissions to cash customers. Limiting the admissions of the prestige universities to the children of the 1% doesn’t precisely sound to me like a better, more just, more egalitarian society but I guess I just don’t see the bigger picture.

One last observation. I found it amusing that Mr. Cohen attended the Naval Academy where the tuition is fully borne by Uncle Sugar and dumped that for Ivy League Brown. I think there’s probably a subtext behind his op-ed.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Guarneri March 21, 2014 at 9:35 am

Well, Brown is pass / fail…….

steve March 21, 2014 at 9:41 am

Top schools, and schools that want to be considered in that group, already emphasize admissions for cash paying students. Too late. Since parents are willing to pay, I dont see much you can do to control costs at those facilities. State schools are another story. I agree with shutting down failing schools. I would use that money to put into other schools. I would stop the dorm and facilities explosion. I would not start on a large expansion of online education until we have demonstrated success at the undergrad level.

Steve

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