Republicans these days are full of tender concern that government welfare programs may weaken the moral fiber of their recipients. That is why they insist that benefits go only to those who prove their fitness of character through employment or job training.
Maybe you haven’t thought of in-state tuition as a welfare program. But an upper-class family can send a child to a flagship school like, say, the University of Maryland for about $10,000 a year. That student is receiving an education that the College Park campus has determined is worth more than $32,000 a year — and plenty of out-of-state students are willing to pay as much. So by the time the student graduates, the family will have gotten a government handout to the tune of $88,000 — and no one will have asked the parents for proof that they’re employed.
I’ve never been able to find an estimate of how many billions of dollars state governments redistribute upward in this way, collecting taxes from families who earn less to subsidize the educations of families who earn more. But it is a lot.
After I made this argument once before, four years ago, a paper published by the Brookings Institution took issue with me. The authors of the 2016 paper, Jason Delisle and Kim Dancy, calculated that the benefits of in-state tuition don’t flow disproportionately to the wealthy, and therefore there is no problem.
“Low-income students account for 37.4 percent of students enrolled in public universities and receive 38.8 percent of all indirect subsidies,” they wrote. “High-income students, who the conventional wisdom says receive a larger share of the subsidies, actually receive a slightly smaller share (19.5 percent) than their enrollment (21.1 percent).”
But if their calculations are correct, more than three-fifths of this substantial hidden subsidy is going to people who aren’t poor — and one-fifth is going to the rich. Where’s the sense in that?
Well, one answer would be: In the 21st century, college is as essential as high school was in the 20th, and so public college today should be as free as public high school became then. This argument makes a lot of sense. But its proponents generally don’t explain where they will find the money to make it happen, so wouldn’t it be logical to begin by helping the youths who most need the help?
A second answer is that state taxpayers are willing to support state university systems on the understanding that their children, if qualified, will be given affordable access. Break the bargain, and you will lose any sense of community buy-in.
No one values that sense of community more than Wallace Loh, president of the University of Maryland. But he believes there’s a middle way — a way to make the system somewhat more progressive and still give all Marylanders a stake in their universities.
Right now, Loh said during a recent visit to The Post, “Maryland is one of the wealthiest states in the union . . . with one of the lowest tuitions. . . . It is a case of the state subsidizing the upper middle class.”
This is not just a theoretical problem for him. Since 2010, he has watched as state support has declined, not as dramatically as in many states, but still from making up about 52 percent of his budget to 40 percent. Tuition and fundraising have to make up the difference — while the political situation in the country, he says, continues to underline the urgency of making college more affordable.
“We have to do a much better job of providing access to working-class folks,” Loh said.
One way to do that would be to raise the in-state tuition rate for those who could afford it, and use the extra funds to help those who could not. “Four thousand a year more would still be a bargain,” he said.
Loh is confident this could work, because it already has: An experiment in differential tuition rates on a much smaller scale, for students majoring in business, computer science and engineering, has been a complete success. Those majors are more expensive — faculty salaries tend to be higher — and graduates earn more. Even with tuition a few thousand dollars higher, he said, demand has soared.
As passionate as he is on the subject, Loh is careful to note that he has made no official proposal to raise tuition more widely, and doesn’t intend to. In a season when Republicans and Democrats alike run for office on the basis of how much they can give away — tax cuts, free college and more — it’s easy to understand why.
“I make the case for higher tuition on moral grounds,” Loh said. “But on political grounds, I know it’s a nonstarter. Who in this country would run for office making the case to raise tuition?”
Read more on this topic: