4 responses to my higher education piece

I wrote 3 theses on higher education. The one people seemed to get the biggest kick out of was the last one, in which I argue that free college would disproportionately benefit rich kids (they are disproportionately represented and pay more than their non-rich cohorts due to price discrimination). One point I did not bring up (but have before) is that it’s also the case that — regardless of background — college graduates go on to make way more over the course of their lifetime than their non-degreed comparators. So free college would disproportionately direct money upward in that way as well. Here are some of the responses.

1. Sara Goldrick-Rab says that the arguments in the post are utterly obvious and nobody seriously contends otherwise.

Professor Goldrick-Rab’s area of research is actually student aid. So she works with this data way more than I do, to say the least. Her criticism of the piece, as hashed out on twitter, was that it was so ridiculously obvious that it is basically stupid of me to put it out there as if I am making any new, edgy, or novel point. I agree of course. She tweeted:

This post is a confusing mess of arguments. Biggest problem- who are you arguing w? Of course concern is driven by “rich” and .. rich drive all concerns. And of course 4 yrs dominate the convo. See prior point. And DUH 4 year free will benefit rich.

Who disputes any of that? It’s beside the point. Fact remains that college is unaffordable for the poor & that includes CC.

that’s bc sociologists have explained what you observed for decades

Everything I’ve written is something sociologists have observed for decades, nobody serious disputes any of it, concern is driven by the rich, four-year institutions dominate the conversation, and of course “DUH 4 year free will benefit rich.”

2. Jordan Weissman adds data that cannot actually be added together to say it is not so.

Despite my pre-warning Weissman that he was embarking upon statistical nonsense, he wrote this piece claiming that colleges are not so rich-dominated. This was his big graph.

The problem of course, as I pointed out well in advance of the piece, is that you can’t add together the incomes of independent and dependent students. The incomes of dependent students refers to their families income while the incomes of independent students refers to their own income. Combing them together and dividing is like saying 6 trees and 10 trucks equals 16. Sixteen of what?

I pressed Weissman on why he is adding together values of different units, which is probably the most basic error in all of statistical reasoning. He said he explained what he was doing in the paragraph below and so it was alright. I can’t say whether doing so actually absolves someone from producing statistical noise that tells us nothing about anything or not, but that’s his line.

Moreover, the very specific problem with the independents is that their personal income tells you nothing about their family background and so literally does not speak to the “rich kid” question. I also pressed Weissman on this, but he did not answer. I notice this morning however that he has edited the piece (including the title) to eliminate all the references to “rich kids” it originally had. I can’t say for sure why.

Of course, I am extraordinarily amused by the graph. Apparently, it’s not just that public four-years don’t skew rich, it is that they are wildly overpopulated by poor kids! The poorest 10 percent are over-represented by 77 percent! Not only do we have equal opportunity in our nation, but we have unequal opportunity in favor of the poor! Haha. I kid of course. That facially absurd conclusion is an artifact of him adding in the personal incomes of independent students with the family incomes of dependent students, which produces literal statistical nonsense. This is why NPSAS doesn’t do it.

3. Seth Ackerman makes a point about taxes.
Ackerman, while granting the point about the skewed class composition of college, challenges whether free higher education would be a disproportionate giveaway to the rich. He talks about the progressive rate structure of federal taxes and argues that, given that structure, it perhaps would not. Of course, most free higher education proposals are focused on state taxes, which are regressive, not federal taxes. But, by itself, that doesn’t kill his point.

The tax point here however is deeply complicated. Does it actually make sense to talk about the tax and the spend as being one big motion, or is it actually two? After all, at any given tax level, you can spend the money wherever you want. So Ackerman’s analysis essentially compares the policy of 1) taxing money and spending it on higher education to 2) not taxing money and not spending it on higher education. But there is obviously a third option: taxing money and not spending it on higher education. This kind of marginal expenditure analysis, if legitimate, would render the tax arguments moot. More simply: it doesn’t necessarily make sense to compare higher education spending to tax cuts since you could spend the money that would go to higher education on things other than tax cuts.

I am not saying you have to analyze it at the marginal dollar like that. Things get more complicated on this front that I don’t think anyone really wants me to go into. The short of it is that I think free higher education funded with a graduate tax (or perhaps a demogrant instead) is a better tax scheme to use for reasons I’ve illuminated before.

4. Angus Johnston says free higher education is about something else.
So my main point, if it can be drilled down, is that poor people are under-represented in four-year public colleges and will continue to be under-represented in four-year public colleges even if you increase subsidies. I am therefore moved to rail against those who think that such a move would actually make these colleges universally accessible. They weren’t universally accessible in the past when they are more affordable and I don’t see that being the case in the future. The fact remains that removing the pay toll does not remove the credential toll, and we know that the credential toll disproportionate screens out poor people and people of color.

Johnston concedes that point, but says free college is not about universal accessibility (as conceived above).

Universal free public higher education, in the short run, would provide a greater economic boost, in raw numbers, to the middle class and the rich than it would to those in poverty.

But so do libraries. So do roads. So do fire departments. So do high schools. The argument for free public higher education isn’t that it’s a targeted income redistribution program, it’s that it’s a universal, communal project, a powerful concrete statement of our values and priorities as a society.

Now to clarify, nowhere have I ever argued that higher education should be a “targeted income redistribution program.” In fact (under this usage of the word “redistribution”), I have specifically railed against the idea of free higher education precisely because it is a kind of income redistribution program…to the rich.

But that doesn’t really matter. What matters is he concedes my basic point, which is all I really care about. Once that’s conceded, I pretty much jump out of the debate because that point is the only reason I ever entered into it to begin with. So long as people stop trotting out the poor in what I take to be a fairly post-hoc disingenuous way, I am happy.

Since were are here though, might as well look at Johnston’s alternative justification for higher education. He says that the point of free higher education is to have “a universal, communal project, a powerful concrete statement of our values and priorities as a society.” Now, one can certainly quibble with what he is talking about when he says universal. A project that selectively screens out poor people and people of color at disproportionate rates (and by the way does not ever serve even the majority of the public who do not attend any four year college) is not obviously universal in the normal sense of the word.

Beyond that quibble on what he means by “universal”, the rest is just going to turn on some kind of first principles move. Projects whose sole goal is to make statements and express symbols never put food in my belly, but maybe it provides psychic benefits to those who envision the world through the lens of novels and other literature or something. One does wonder what exactly it would say about our values and priorities as a society to fully public fund (without something like a graduate tax) an institution that serves only a minority of the public, a minority that comes from disproportionately affluent backgrounds and will enjoy disproportionately affluent futures ($1 million college wage premium at the median).

Maybe what it says about our values depends on who you are, with professors, graduate students, college graduates, and those from high socioeconomic backgrounds believing it says very grand things, and folks from other backgrounds believing it’s just the same old same old. I don’t know and, given that my politics is not one concerned with performative statement-making anyways, I don’t particularly care either.