In a New York Times op-ed on the self-reinforcing nature of inequality, Robert Frank writes “perhaps the most import new feedback loop shows up in higher education. Tighter budgets in middle-class families make it harder for them to afford the special tutors and other environmental advantages that help more affluent students win admission to elite universities. Financial aid helps alleviate these problems, but the children of affluent families graduate debt-free and move quickly into top-paying jobs, while the children of other families face lesser job prospects and heavy loads of student debt. All too often, the less affluent experience the miracle of compound interest in reverse.” (See full article, The Vicious Circle of Income Inequality.) What does that mean for higher education? Frank proposes that “we’ll want to think more creatively about public policies that might contain” any of the feedback loops that increase inequality. How about a little more self-scrutiny and creative thinking on the part of institutions of higher education?
Economists suggest college is a great value, as every year of higher education translates on average into 6% more pay every year (see Part I). But if you ask the American public, the answer is not so rosy.
A Pew Research Center survey from 2011 shows that the majority of Americans think college is less than a good value. This raises the question of what informs that judgment. Is it that tuition has gone up without a concomitant rise in quality of the education offered? Is there an underlying perception of unfairness? Do people see other avenues to getting a higher wage? Does the hardship of coming up with the funds during college cause so much pain that future earnings don’t feel like adequate compensation? Do people really think they are subsidizing research that doesn’t actually improve the quality of the education one receives?
Gaining a better understanding of what the real answers are would probably make a big difference to the overall college experience and to the way that colleges can market their services.