A couple of weeks ago, I had an exchange with a colleague who couldn’t figure out why tuition wasn’t means-tested. It just makes sense, he said: make the rich kids pay lots of tuition, and make the poor kids pay very little.
I argued that it was means-tested. If you didn’t have means, you’d get a grant, which would reduce tuition (though I allowed that this was done a lot less effectively than it could be, given how poor our targeting system in student aid is). ”OK”, he said, “but why not cut out the middle-man and just vary tuition directly according to a student’s parental income?”
Now, there’s something to be said for this. Clarity, for starters. As we noted yesterday, there are already tens of thousands of low-income students attending for free, and nobody seems to know it. If we could just re-package aid and fees into a single, easily understood figure, that clarity might go a long way to improving access.
It’s also not unprecedented: in 1998, when tuition fees were introduced in the UK, the fees were made variable based on income. Students from families making over £30,000 were charged £1,000; those from families making between £20,000 and £30,000 were charged £500, and those from families making less than £20,000 were not charged anything at all. Similarly, in a couple of the German states that introduced tuition after 2006, waivers were instituted so that poorer students paid nothing at all.
There are basically two reasons why we don’t do this in Canada. The simple, technical reason is that in most parts of Canada, universities are still notionally in charge of tuition and admission, and universities don’t ask students what their income is. In the UK, government agencies outside the university were in charge of both, so it was easy enough to achieve. For us to do that here would require taking away at lest some institutional autonomy and/or making sure that whoever makes the admission decision also knows a student’s family background. Ontario’s provincial university application centre (OUAC) might be the kind of organization to do this, but elsewhere in Canada it would be more difficult, as each individual institution would have to tool up a separate income-assessment system. Not impossible, by any means, but difficult.
But the bigger issue is simple raw politics. If government grants were folded into a single tuition price, how could the federal government get credit for all its tax credits and Canada Study Grants? How could Ontario get credit for its Utterly Inane 30% Tuition Rebate? And, depending on how rigid you wanted to be about this one price rule, it might also prevent universities from using their student aid and scholarship budgets strategically.
In short, the barriers to simple, easy-to-understand means-tested tuition systems are less technical than political. It’s a case of the need to be seen to do good trumping the need to actually do good. Sad but true.