What are college costs?

The term “college costs” is used so sloppily that I have no idea in most cases what anyone actually means by it. I’ve written before about the difference between 1) the sticker price of college (what colleges quote their prices at), 2) the net price of college (what the average student actually pays), and 3) the price of college for a given student (which differs based upon their financial background for instance).

But here I am keying in on something different. When people talk about college costs, they could be referring to the price of college (whether talking about 1, 2, or 3 above) or the actual institutional costs, i.e. the expenditures of a given college. Conflating these various things makes arguments totally incomprehensible.

If by “college costs,” you mean institutional costs, then that is calling for lower overall educational spending per student. That makes sense of course to the extent that there is institutional waste, i.e. spending that is not actually achieving some important educational goal. Of course, generally the left is a huge fan of ramping up institutional costs of education, at least they are for K-12 schools. They seem to always be calling for flooding more money into those schools, not to reduce the price of the schools (which is $0), but presumably because they think higher institutional spending will improve the education of the students.

So I am somewhat skeptical that the left really wants to “cut college costs” if we are to understand that phrase to mean institutional costs. If they are, it is interestingly in tension with K-12 schools where the left wants to expand institutional costs. It would also put the left at odds with one of its loudest constituencies — those employed in academia — whose usual stances on things like this suggests they aren’t looking to actually make schools more lean (rightly or wrongly).

If reducing “college costs” just means reducing the price students pay, that is really an argument about who should pay. It is not about cutting “college costs”, it is about having people other than students bear those costs. It is about shifting costs. There is nothing particularly wrong with that, but if you are arguing for shifting costs, you really should spend time explaining who you want to shift those costs on to. Saying “cut college costs” conveniently leaves out the explanation of who is going to bear the costs going forward.

I assume that when they say “reduce college costs” in this sense, they mean “shift college costs on to the public.” But this too is a bit abstract. Where does the money that the public has come from? I ask this because when we are talking about state/local funding of higher education (which is what we are usually talking about), we know where that money comes from: it comes from regressive state and local taxes. So on this meaning of “reduce college costs” — when you put it all together — the advocacy is actually to shift college costs away from students and on to the regressive tax base of state and local governments.

I’d like to see a full-throated argument for that since that is what people are actually arguing for, but I’ve been asking for a number of full-throated arguments about higher education funding for quite a while now and have yet to see anyone undertake one of them.