Stop lying about higher education costs for low-income students

Chris Blattman links to a piece by Joe Nocera that criticizes the tyranny of U.S. News college rankings. He promotes an alternative ranking by the Washington Monthly that emphasizes over-performance in graduating students and encouraging graduates to give back to society. Fighting the U.S. News rankings is a noble endeavor – they’re generally oversimplified, game-able and wrong – so I’m inclined to like anything that attacks them. But then Nocera wraps his argument up in the standard conventional wisdom about higher education getting too expensive:

Those who don’t land a prestigious admission feel like failures. Those who do but lack the means often wind up taking on onerous debt — a burden that can last a lifetime.

I’ve pointed out before that this is nonsense: the sticker price of college has risen rapidly but actual prices paid are falling over the last few years, due to an increase in financial aid. Moreover, the gap between actual and sticker prices is biggest at “prestigious admission” schools. When I was admitted to the Leland Stanford Junior University (organized 1891!) my actual cost of attendance was substantially lower than the out-of-state tuition I would have paid at its rival across the bay. It was Berkeley, and not Stanford, that I could not afford to attend. That discrepancy has only grown since 2002 – most ultra-wealthy schools at the top of the college rankings now don’t require students from the poorest families to pay anything at all. Stanford is a follower, not a leader, on this massive level of financial aid; Princeton has been doing it for nearly a decade, and even prior to that financial aid was very generous at all these institutions. So I don’t believe this quote one bit, unless it was based on fairly ancient history:

The author, who was not part of the cheating scandal, had succeeded in getting into a “Desirable University,” as she put it, but her parents had been unable to afford the tuition. She wound up, deeply embittered, at a state school.

Now, not being able to pay the price of your child’s university attendance and not wanting to do so are different animals. It’s entirely possible that the latter was the case. Just because a (fairly wealthy) family can afford the high sticker price of a rich private school doesn’t mean that they are willing to do so. But emphasizing the “elite schools are too expensive” story is harmful to low-income students, who may be discouraged from applying to schools that are cheaper than the alternative. Washington Monthly rates UCSD highly, partly on the back of cost-effectiveness; might poor students from other states assume that it is cheaper (for them) than Stanford? That would be a shame, and an expensive one. For sufficiently poor applicants Stanford is free, and it’s pretty hard to beat free in a cost-effectiveness comparison.

As a side note, my alma mater came in third in the Washington Monthly rankings. Given the emphasis on post-graduation public service, this isn’t a huge surprise, but we may have been underrated: one component of that ranking is ROTC participation, and (originally due to “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”) Stanford doesn’t allow ROTC activities on campus. It also doesn’t include, for example, becoming a development economist or other life-long careers in public service. What about teaching, for example?

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