A few weeks ago, I noted on Twitter that back when I was in student politics (24 years and counting) we opposed tuition hikes because we feared their negative effect on access. Back then, fees hadn’t increased in real terms in almost two decades, so there wasn’t much evidence either way on the issue. More than two decades on, the evidence has accumulated, and, on the whole, it turns out that what we believed back then was mostly mistaken: despite much higher tuition, more students than ever are attending PSE, and more low-income students than ever are attending PSE.
As a result, it’s increasingly ridiculous to use access arguments against tuition increases: basically you’re reduced to slogans like, “tuition reduces access! And it’s a disgrace more people are paying it every year!” Given this, I asked Twitter peeps what the best grounds were for opposing higher tuition and debt. The most common answer was some variation of “tuition/debt causes inequality”, on the grounds that graduates with debt accumulate assets more slowly than students without debt.
Superficially plausible, maybe, but still wrong. Inequality doesn’t exist “because of” borrowing. Everybody pays equal tuition fees; debt is incurred by those who don’t have the cash up front to pay for it. Blaming student aid for inequality is just blaming student aid for the fact that some students come from poorer families, and others from richer ones. You don’t have to condone inequality to realize that it’s a silly proposition.
So, students who go in rich don’t accumulate debt, and therefore end up richer at the other end; students who go in poor do accumulate debt, and therefore remain poorer at the other end. But that would be true regardless of how fees are set. If you reduce fees for all, everybody is made better by the same amount. Poorer families end up with less debt, richer families get to keep more cash-in-hand. For the abolition of fees to reduce inequality, it would have to create some kind of behavioural change among richer parents that would make them less likely to pass that extra money on to their kids. And how likely is that?
These are all pretty basic observations, yet they rarely make it into the debate about tuition and debt. Partly, it’s because inter-generational transfers complicate the analysis, but I think it’s mostly because debt makes people squirrelly. As Margaret Atwood and David Graeber have pointed out in recent books, the concept of debt is tied-up with an enormous amount of cultural baggage, which makes it difficult to talk about in purely economic terms. For the next couple of days, I’ll be unpacking some of these cultural issues, and how they affect our discourse on debt.