If I could ban one word from higher education discussions, it’s “affordability”. It’s a word without precision, and, particularly when used as a synonym for “accessibility”, it’s downright misleading and harmful.
The worst is when someone uses the raw price of a good – in this case tuition – to indicate “affordability”; as in: “tuition went up 5% last year, and that makes it less affordable”. This is simply asinine. When the price of milk or gas goes up, we don’t wring our hands about the “affordability” of milk or gas. We don’t do this for two reasons. The first is that “affordability”, as a concept, is a ratio and not a point. It’s a function not just of price, but of available resources. If people were serious when talking about affordability, they would be talking about it in terms of fractions, not prices.
(This of course raises a question – what should we use as a denominator? When I talk affordability, I tend to use mean or median family income, because nearly all students entering post-secondary education for the first time are drawing on family resources to do so. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives tends to use much smaller numbers as a denominator, like whatever the minimum wage happens to be. I get where they’re coming from on this – many students, as they get older, pick up more of the burden of their education costs [though they also tend to earn significantly more than minimum wage]. My number will tend make the fraction fairly small. Their number will make it look large. Who’s right? It depends; to some extent, we both are.)
Which brings us to the second issue: there are people for whom a night out at the movies is affordable, and others for whom it is not. For some people a Mercedes S-500 is affordable, for others (most of us) it’s not. Demand curves slope downward, and affordability matters at the margin, not the average. Most people are simply not affected by an increase in price. Even in the largest tuition increase in history – the English tuition hike of 2012, where tuition rose by nearly $9,000 – the net effect on applications was only about 5%. To the extent that affordability affects accessibility, the issue is always about how it affects student at the margin, not how it affects the average student.
That’s why student aid is important. Student aid helps the students at the margin (or at least it does so everywhere outside Ontario, where “needy” has been re-defined by a vote-grubbing government as anyone with income under $160,000). Having grants offsetting higher costs is precisely the way affordability concerns should be dealt with – provided you think that affordability is an access issue.
The problem is, for most people the question of affordability is about almost anything other than accessibility. For most, it’s about making sure that whoever is paying for tuition has more money in their pocket to have a better “quality of life”. Parents – you deserve that second vacation each year rather than paying tuition! Students – you should have smaller loan repayments on your way to being the upper-middle class of tomorrow!
Affordability – as a ratio – is thus an important concept in the way we design student aid to help students at the margin. But the way most people try to explain the concept, and the purposes for which they deploy the concept, are either wrong or disingenuous. We need to talk a lot more about access and a lot less about affordability.