So, let’s say you’re among those who clings to the idea that tuition isn’t just a massive give-away to upper-income families. Let’s say you really, really believe that tuition – sticker-price tuition, none of these “net price calculations”, thank you very much – affects access. How would you go about gathering evidence for your point of view?
Ideally, of course, there would be some data showing that, as fees went up, participation went down. Problem is, the data doesn’t show this. To wit:
Tuition + Ancillary Fees (in $2013) and Participation Rates, Canada, 1993-94 to 2012-13
Well, OK then. Maybe if you’re desperate to prove a point, you might relax your scruples about counting grants against tuition. Maybe it’s all the extra student aid pouring into the system which has made a difference?
Tuition + Ancillary Fees (in $2013), Net Fees (i.e. Minus Grants) and Participation Rates, Canada, 1993-94 to 2012-13
Well, no. Damn! Now what?
Well, here’s one possibility. Check this out:
Real Tuition + Ancillary Fees, Minus Grants and Tax Credits, as a Percentage of Average After-Tax Family Income
If you add grants and tax credits, and adjust for inflation, and then adjust for median family income, you get to the point where you realize that, in fact, fees were more or less constant in terms of affordability over the last decade or so. So voila! That damnable rise in tuition fees that so inconveniently accompanied the increase in participation rates? Turns out it didn’t happen – at least if you properly count subsidies. In fact, one could now convincingly argue that the lack of a relationship between fees and participation is a huge hoax, and that the rise in participation was actually fuelled by the massive infusion of tax credits and grants over the past fifteen years, which effectively netted out the impact of tuition.
There’s a slight problem with all this, of course. And it’s that the zero-tuition crowd has a long track record of claiming that subsidies have no effect whatsoever, because sticker price is the only thing that matters. No one thinks tax credits have any effect on participation, and the more hardcore of the zero-tuition crowd don’t believe grants matter either (True story: a long-time student leader informed me the other day that the whole concept of net tuition was bogus, and that grants should never be included in discussions about affordability, because “grants don’t reduce tuition, they just help you pay for it”. Yes, really).
So the zero-tuition crowd has three choices here:
- They can keep their beliefs about subsidies, but accept that participation has risen along with tuition, and admit that, perhaps, their views on tuition are wrong.
- They can renounce everything they’ve ever said about subsidies, run with the idea that affordability has not been deteriorating, and arguing that this is what has fuelled the rise in participation.
- Ignore all empirical evidence, and continue their evidence-free approach to the whole question.
No prizes for guessing which is likeliest.