There are only a few certainties in life, such as death, taxes, and Murphy’s Law holding true at the most inopportune times. For nearly everyone, however, knowing the cost of college more than a few months in advance is definitely not one of those certainties. But given the high sticker price of attending college (which is not tremendously useful for most people), what can be done to provide cost certainty for students and their families over the course of several years?
As a part of a nifty series of essays on possible ways to overhaul the college experience, Beckie Supiano of The Chronicle of Higher Education takes a quick look at what has been done to provide better cost information. She focuses on a useful goal—being able to provide students with the net price of education (tuition less grant aid) over the course of several years. While this is a great idea in theory, it quickly runs into several problems in practice:
(1) Colleges only control a fraction of grant aid, especially for financially needy students. Most federal need-based grants require that a student be eligible to receive the Pell Grant; if family income rises by a small amount, the loss of aid can be devastating. This also makes forecasting net price nearly impossible for middle-income families.
(2) Most colleges cannot forecast their available resources several years in advance. Public colleges are at the whims of economic circumstances and the state government, while many private colleges rely on a combination on endowment revenue and rear ends in seats in order to make ends meet.
(3) Colleges, like most of us out there, tend to be what economists call risk-averse. In English, that means that we don’t like being exposed to uncertainty. Students and their families currently bear the brunt of the uncertainty with respect to higher education pricing, but locking in a price regardless of the economic circumstances would shift that risk to the college. Most colleges would likely set a very high initial price in order to account for this uncertainty.
A small number of states have experimented with guaranteed tuition plans through prepaid tuition programs, which helps provide at least some certainty (although they do not guarantee set amounts of financial aid). Alabama’s program ran out of money during the financial crisis and is currently closed to new enrollment while facing legal challenges. A similar program in Illinois is also drastically underfunded, which is a common theme in the Land of Lincoln.
The article makes a key mistake in discussing cost certainty—it ignores the fact that known cost increases still represent cost certainty. If a college guarantees that tuition will go up by five percent per year for the next five years, students and parents can still have an idea of what college will cost in the future. The State University of New York system took a similar path in 2011, allowing each university in the system to raise tuition by up to $300 per year for five years. This proposal is quite useful as it puts increases in dollar terms, which are easier to understand than percentages.
I am interested in providing more information on cost certainty, but my research focuses on the financial aid side of the cost equation instead of the tuition side. I am currently working on two studies examining whether students and their families can receive earlier notifications of their financial aid, with results hopefully to come in the next few months. It is far from perfect, but it does help provide a little more information in an uncertain world.