First, Do Your Homework

Monday, December 21, 2009
There's growing concern with higher education's affordability problem, as well there should be. It's hard to see how college will promote social mobility if a kid's ability to access it is increasingly linked to whether or not his family has money.

So it's heartening to see college leaders attempting to provide solutions. But it'd be even better if we first saw them earnestly attempting to understand where the real sources of trouble lie. I'm afraid that step's being skipped a bit too often, running the risk of making things worse.

Here's a recent example. At this month's Regents Board Meeting, University of Wisconsin System President Kevin Reilly was explicitly asked to name some solutions to promoting affordability at his institutions. There were many ways he could respond. To his credit, Reilly acknowledged the importance of growing the state's paltry support for need-based aid and he said that multiple solutions were needed--there's no one silver bullet. Fair enough. But then he took a bit of a flying leap, saying we also needed an informational campaign aimed at helping students and families understand that it's best to finish college in four years.

Huh? This one left me scratching my head.

More specifically, Reilly said that his administration needs to do a better job communicating with students and families about their educational "choices" and the financial implications of those choices. He suggested that students and families do not know that finishing in four saves money, and if they did, they'd make "better" decisons.

Based on what, exactly?

Was Reilly in possession of some new empirical evidence indicating that Wisconsin families don't perceive the returns to a college degree, or one earned on time? Had he or his staff done homework that showed students were taking longer to finish because they lacked a "focus on 4?" I wish this was the case, but I doubt it. The only data Reilly has publicly provided for his argument is this: he compared the completion rates of in-state students to out-of-state students and noted that the latter group pays more tuition and finishes degrees faster. Given the numerous differences between the two groups, this is an especially weak argument, and one that a decent analysis of the data could easily tear apart.

On the other hand, we have a new national report from the Gates Foundation about the most common reason for college dropout: students' overwhelming need to work. There's also a rigorous study from the National Bureau of Economic Research showing that declining resources for higher education (e.g. supply-side factors) contribute more to college completion rates than do student-side factors. In an earlier paper, the same authors pointed to how the overcrowding of non-top 50 public institutions (a category into which nearly all of Reilly's institutions fit) leads to increased time-to-degree. And within Wisconsin I am co-leading a team of researchers investigating precisely how and why affordability matters for college success. None of that work provides support for the idea that students don't know that finishing a degree faster will save them money. Instead, they have a hard time figuring out how to make that happen while juggling work, family, and school.

Of course, Reilly isn't alone in thinking that he needs to share this "money-saving advice" with students and families. The problem is that his assumption and his message aren't benign. In particular, both come across as out-of-touch and insensitive to the harsh realities of some students' lives. Just think about his words on the subject, which include these quotes: "You've got to realize how much more you're going to be paying unless you focus." "...Part of the problem clearly is students choosing to say, 'I don't want to take an 8 a.m. course' or 'I want to take my courses between 10 (a.m.) and 3 (p.m.) on Tuesday and Thursday.,," "We need to be clearer about results of choices that students and families make about college...There are ways that students and families, by planning ahead a bit and making some focused intentional choices, can hold the cost of an education down."

The assumption he's making-- that the choices made by low-income families are not "intentional" or even informed--rests on shaky, volatile ground. As I've argued elsewhere, the common sport of painting working-class students and families as irrational is off-base. In fact, taken in the context of significant constraints on their lives the decisions many students make about extending their time to degree are quite rational. As a former UW undergraduate told me, ‘It's not an issue of choosing to work when classes are available, but often an issue of you don't get to choose your schedule, especially as the number of hours you work increases."

I have a feeling that when making his suggestion, Reilly was referencing those picky students who want to sleep late and be choosy about their courses, a common rep given to the Madison undergrads (for example). The problem is, those aren't the same students not completing degrees in 4 years. In essence, he's drawing on impressions of an elite group of students to shape solutions to the problems of the non-elite. Not gonna work.

In the absence of any empirical support, one has to wonder-- why does this idea have any traction at all? I think its because it fits with American ideals-those who work the hardest and "focus" the most will get ahead. It places the blame squarely on individuals rather than institutions, even when purporting to share responsibility. Constraints be damned; if you "know" what's good for you, you'll do it. Plus, communicating to students what's good for them is far less expensive than providing the financial support they need to make their actual choices pay off.

Crafting solutions to policy problems without doing sufficient homework first can incur trouble. For one, you risk insulting and alienating the very folks you wanted to help. That's certainly what happened here. As the former UW student told me, "Very few people are oblivious to the fact that adding an extra year to your education costs more money... I'm disappointed that the UW-System seems absolutely unaware of the challenges faced by its students, and its president believes that it's due to personal choice or ignorance that a student would not graduate in four years...The system misunderstands the plight of students who have similar circumstances to the ones I experienced."