The Price and Cost of College Are Different Things

As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about some of the wonkier issues of higher education finance, there are some common statements that just drive me nuts. For example, people who refer to the U.S. Department of Education as the “DOE” (it’s “ED” and the Department of Energy is “DOE”) or pronounce the FAFSA as “FASFA” might as well be screeching their fingernails on a chalkboard. But, as much as those things annoy me, they’re examples of inside baseball at their finest—they don’t affect students, but they’re still deviations from the norm. So I’ll try to hide my grimaces in those situations going forward.

However, I will say something every time someone erroneously refers to the cost of college when they truly mean the price of college, as these are two distinctly different concepts. Here are the definitions of the two terms:

Price: This represents how much money a student and/or their family has to pay for college.

Cost: This represents how much money it takes to provide an education.

With the presence of federal, state, and institutional financial aid as well as direct state appropriations to colleges, the price that many students pay can be far below the true cost of providing the education. On the other hand, due to the tangled web of subsidies present in the “awkward economics” of higher education, some students (such as full-freight international students and master’s students as well as those enrolled in large lecture classes) may be paying far more than it costs to provide their education.

From a policymaker’s perspective, it if far easier to propose bringing down the price of college than the cost of college—even though these proposals have large price tags and finding funding can be difficult. (An exception is so-called “last dollar” programs at community colleges, which often leverage other grant aid sources instead of using much of their own money.) Bending the cost curve is a far more difficult endeavor, as technology generally hasn’t done much to reduce costs (a promising master’s degree program at Georgia Tech notwithstanding) and other options such as increasing class sizes or spending less on facilities frequently run into opposition.

Efforts to bring down the price of college have become increasingly popular over the last several years, but they must be accompanied with a willingness to reduce costs in order for these programs to be financially feasible in the long run. To this point, cost control has remained a distant goal for most policymakers—a perfectly reasonable position given the shorter time horizons of most politicians. Bringing down prices today gets attention, while the crucial step of bringing down costs in the future is nowhere near as exciting.

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About Robert

I am an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. All opinions are my own.
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