I’ve got a couple of work phone calls today, so Steve is taking the boys to look at a SLAC in Pennsylvania without me. I would have liked to go, too, but it will be really nice to work without a million distractions. I can’t properly getting into the writing mode with the boys around. I’m always bracing myself for an interruption that tears me away from a thought. I hate that. I’m not the most admirable parent, when that happens.
Ronald Brownstein has an interesting article in the Atlantic today about the impact of Bernie’s — and now Hillary’s — plan for free tuition at public colleges. He quotes research from Anthony Carnevale from Georgetown.
If tuition is eliminated at public universities for families with income up to $125,000, as Clinton has proposed, more upper- middle-class students who now attend private schools may decide that Austin, Ann Arbor, or Berkeley are better bargains—and intensify competition for the limited slots available there. “What this will do is create a lot of people competing for spaces at public institutions and it will have a bumping effect,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “For minorities and low-income students it will push them down the selectivity queue, toward open admission and two-year colleges.”
I know that there are parts of the country where a family income of $125,000 is upper middle class, but it isn’t around here. It certainly isn’t around Carnevale’s Georgetown neighborhood. A $125,000 is the family income of a school teacher with ten years of experience married to an office manager. That’s not upper-middle class.
$32,000 — that’s the in-state tuition for Rutgers — is a stretch for a family making $125,000. College tuition might amount to a third of the take-home income for that family. If that kid is lucky enough to finish in four years, that B.A. will cost the family more than an entire year of salary.
A kid with an average GPA and test scores from a family like this isn’t going to Georgetown or other very selective private colleges that have a price tag of $70K. Rich kids are hardly going to be swamping the campuses of Rutgers and Delaware and pushing out more needy kids, if a plan like Hillary’s actually makes it through Congress (pretty unlikely anyway).
Now, a plan like this would be great for the lower and the middle middle class. For families that have enough resources to prepare their kids for college, but not enough to afford them. Would it help many lower income families? No. Because not enough of those kids are going to college and those that do are going to less selective colleges and many of them don’t finish school, because they weren’t adequately prepared in high school.
Brownstein does hit on a real problem in his article. The problem is that public colleges have become too competitive. While $32,000 is a lot of money, it is still cheaper than the $70K for the private colleges. With all the new amenities on these public school campuses, they are drawing kids that would have gone to the private schools. There aren’t enough seats in the classrooms for kids with average academic backgrounds. So, the traditional students of public colleges – middle class kids with B’s – are in a jam. Parents are sending them to out of state colleges with price tags in the $40-$55K range and racking up more debt.
So, there are three separate problems all of which need different solutions. Problem One is that college is unaffordable to middle class families. Problem Two is that there aren’t enough seats in public colleges in some states, like California, New York and New Jersey. Problem Three is that lower income kids are getting funneled to less selective schools and failing out.
The “free tuition” proposal solves Problem One, but doesn’t do anything about Problems Two and Three. Unlike Brownstein, I don’t think that “free tuition” will make Problems Two and Three worse.