What’s the Most Important Public Policy Question?

March 20, 2013

I am shaking my head at a blog post I read this morning from Andrew Gillen, research director at Education Sector. He’s objecting to a chart in the most recent report of the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEOs, for short) on the state of higher education. In particular, he is objecting to how they translate current costs to constant costs — how they account, that is, for inflation.

Here is the original chart from the SHEEOs: SHEEO 2012 originalNow here is Gillen’s re-do, in which he uses the Consumer Price Index rather than the Higher Education Cost Adjustment (HECA), which he believes overstates inflation:SHEEO 2012 Ed Sector redoYes, there are differences between these two, but they sure look like subtle, inside-baseball differences. The SHEEOs look at their version of the chart and note that educational appropriations by state governments (the blue portion) has been decreasing, and decreased again in the last year. And they note that the net tuition paid by students and families increased again.

Not so fast, says Gillen. Using the CPI, “the SHEEO figures underestimate the true increase in net tuition revenue” and “overestimate the decline in educational appropriations.” He’s right about the nature of the difference between his version of the graph and the SHEEO original.  Nevertheless, the amount being spent per student by state governments is still declining on his chart, and the amount being paid by students and families is increasing.  It’s a worrying trend.

Finally, Gillen argues, that the SHEEO chart appears to show that the total cost of education paid by someone is basically flat, while his version shows that total costs are going up.  Really? Is that a fair judgement even looking at his version of the chart. Notice that the total costs per FTE (full height of the bars) have been declining for the past six years, and that these total costs per FTE are lower today than they were in 2001.

Gillen uses his contrast in the two charts to argue that the “most important public policy questions” are these “How much should it cost to educate a student, can we cut costs, and is there any way to keep costs from rising?” The SHEEOs version of the chart would make the most important question “who pays?”

I’m with the SHEEOs on this. Both versions of the chart show that someone is going to have to pay about $11,000 per FTE to provide higher education for students. If the state appropriations are going down — as they surely are — then an increasing burden is falling on students and parents. (Notice that student borrowing is increasing rapidly.)

We know that the next generation of potential students will come from relatively poorer families. If we don’t focus on the “who pays” question, then we will rob many in that generation of a chance to go to college, and rob all of us of the better future we might enjoy were they to receive an education.

Or should I title this post “College Costs: the Dishonest Conversation (3)”? Earlier editions here and here.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
This entry was posted in Access. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to What’s the Most Important Public Policy Question?

  1. Pingback: The Quick and the Ed » More on the SHEEO Chart

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s