HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: tuition

October 15

Free Tuition in Chile

Last fall, Michelle Bachelet was once again elected as President of Chile, on a considerably more radical platform than that which propelled her to the same position eight years earlier.  One of her many campaign promises was to make higher education completely free.  This is a Big Deal.  It’s not like Germany, where tuition was only ever a derisory sum; in Chile, tuition payments are equal to 2% of GDP, a larger percentage than anywhere else in the world, outside Korea.

So, ten months on from re-election, how are they getting on with things?  The quick answer is: slowly.  But not for want of trying.

The heart of the problem is a constitutional provision, dating from the Pinochet era, which guarantees Chileans the freedom to make a living however they want.  Effectively, this prevents the government from compulsory nationalization.  In higher education, where the vast majority of institutions are private (though some of them receive public funds), this makes effectuating the Bachelet promise difficult.  So the government has gone down the route of trying to buy private institutions’ obedience by paying student fees on students’ behalf.

Now, the government isn’t stupid; it’s aware that private universities are likely to respond by raising fees.  That’s why they intend to rely on something called a “reference tuition fee”.  This is an invention of the Chilean student aid system, which is the only one in the world that takes the Bennett Hypothesis (i.e. that student aid encourages cost inflation in higher education) seriously.  Basically, Chilean loans programs don’t provide 100% of tuition – they only cover a “reference” fee, which ranges from about 80% to 100% of the actual fee.  The problem is that reference fees vary significantly: the fee for a law program at one institution may be vastly different than at another.  So the first task to make this work is to create a “standard” reference fee – but this is causing enormous problems.  Set it too high and you risk getting fleeced by the institutions; set it too low, and institutions will opt out of the system.  It’s not clear that the government will be able to find such a not-too-hot-not-to-cold fee.

Although the government claims to be able to fund the one-time cost of transferring 2% of GDP from the private to the public sector via new taxes, some independent observers question whether it will, in fact, be able to fully replace the tuition income institutions will lose.  Even if this money can be replaced, it’s not exactly clear where money will come from to fund future system growth or system quality improvement.

More generally, there’s a question about value-for-money in this policy.  Even the proponents of free fees don’t dwell on the promise that the system will become more equitable.  Access to higher education and stratification in Chile are already reasonably good: indeed, their access outcomes look a lot like Canada’s, despite significant fees in both the public and private sector, and the fact that Chile’s (mostly private) system of secondary education creates enormous inequities in outcomes, meaning room for improvement is not great.

Mostly, what proponents of free fees in the Chilean system believe is that “the market should not decide” in higher education.  Which, you know, fair enough.  Only two problems: i) historically, the state tends not to be so hot as a master, either; and ii) in a country that has as many challenges as Chile, is such a goal worth 2% of GDP?  Honestly?

October 14

Free Tuition in Germany

A few years ago, Germany’s Supreme court declared that tuition fees were constitutional, thus paving the way for some states to experiment with fees.  Seven of them (containing over half of all students) did so: Baden-Wurttemburg, Bavaria, Hamburg, Hesse, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, and Saarland.  The fees varied a bit from place to place, but most settled on a modest €500 (Hesse was €1000) – though in some places waiver systems meant that as many as a third of students paid nothing at all.

Gradually, the Länder have reversed their decisions, and this fall the final Länder (Lower Saxony) got rid of fees.  Hence a raft of stories in the last couple of weeks about Germany “going tuition-free”, and questions from some quarters, asking: “could Canada do the same”?  To which the answer is: of course we could.

It would be trivially easy for us to eliminate tuition.  Heck, we already pay net zero tuition, in that what we charge domestic students is more or less equal to what we spend on various forms of non-repayable aid.  If we got rid of all our student aid and scholarship programs we could have free tuition.  It would be a bit rough on low-income students, students with dependents, and college students (who for the most part would lose money on the deal); it also would be a windfall for wealthier kids who go to university, but I’ve yet to meet anyone in the free-tuition camp who seems to care about that.  Of course, that too would make us more like Germany, where direct funding for living costs is pretty meagre: only about 20% of students there qualify for student aid, and it tends to be for far less than what our students get.

At another level, of course, it would be even more trivially easy for us to “do a Germany”.  All we need to do is stop spending so much public money on higher education.  Their expenditure on higher education is about half of what ours is: per-student funding to institutions in Germany is about $10,000 (€7,000); in Canada, it’s about $15,000.  And that has impacts as well: professors there, on average, only get paid about 60% of what ours do.  When education costs are so low, it’s not difficult to keep tuition down.

German participation rates in higher education are also lower than ours, in part because they have no money to accommodate more students.  They could have kept tuition fees and directed institutions to use that money to expand access, but they preferred not to do that.  And so, as a result, the German student body is much more socio-economically selective than ours is – indeed, it is one of the most selective anywhere in Europe, and was so before fees were introduced.

So ask not if we could become like Germany, ask why we’d want to be more like Germany.  Why would we want to spend less public money on higher education?  Why, when the private returns to education are so high, would we want to exempt the beneficiaries from paying for the privileges they receive?  Why would we want to give a windfall benefit to children from wealthier families who quite clearly have the capacity and desire to pay?  Why would we spend all that money when the benefits to the poor – whose net tuition is already close to zero – would benefit barely at all?

Warum, indeed.

September 10

How StatsCan Measures Changes in Tuition

Every September, Statistics Canada publishes data on “average tuition fees”. It’s a standard date on the back-to-school media calendar, where everyone gets to freak out about the cost of education.  And we all take it for granted that the data StatsCan publishes is “true”.  But there are some… subtleties… to the data that are worth pointing out.

Statistics Canada collects data on tuition from individual institutions through a survey called the Tuition and Living Accommodation Survey (TLAC).  For each field of study at each institution, TLAC asks for “lower” and “upper” fees separately for Canadian and foreign students, for both graduate and undergraduate students.  Now, in provinces where the “upper” and “lower” figure are the same (eg. Newfoundland), it’s pretty simple to translate lower/upper to “average”.  In Quebec and Nova Scotia, where “upper” and “lower” are functionally equivalent to “in-province” and “out-of-province”, averages can be worked out simply by cross-referencing to PSIS enrolment data, and weighting the numbers according to place of student origin.  Everywhere else, it’s a total mess.  In Ontario, significant variation between “upper” and “lower” numbers are the norm, even inside the institution (for instance, with different tuition levels for different years of study).  Somehow, StatsCan uses some kind of enrolment weighting to produce an average, but how the weights are derived is a mystery.  Finally, in a couple of provinces where there are differences between the “lower” and “upper” figures, StatsCan chooses to use the “lower” figure as an average.  (No, I have absolutely no idea why).

But the tuition data is squeaky clean compared to the mess that is StatsCan’s data on ancillary fees.  Institutions fill in the ancillary fee part of the questionnaire every year, but usually without much reference to what was reported the year before.   Since StatsCan doesn’t have the staff to thoroughly check the information, institutional figures swing pretty wildly up and down from one year to the next, even though everyone knows perfectly well ancillary fees only ever go in one direction.

Another complication is that “average” is a central tendency – it is affected not just by posted prices, but also by year-to-year shifts in enrolments.  As students switch from cheaper to more expensive programs (e.g. out of humanities and into professional programs), average tuition rises.  As student populations grow more quickly in the more expensive provinces (e.g. Ontario) than in cheaper ones (e.g. Quebec, Newfoundland), then again average tuitions rise – even if all fees stayed exactly the same.  Both of these things are in fact happening, and are small but noticeable contributors to the “higher tuition” phenomenon.

A final complicating factor: the data on tuition and the data on enrolment by which it’s weighted come from completely different years.  Tuition is up-to-the-minute: the 2014-15 data will be from the summer of 2014; the enrolment data by which it is weighted will be 2012-3.  And, to make things even weirder, when StatsCan presents the ’14-15 data next year as a baseline against which to measure the ’15-16 data, it will be on the basis of revised figures weighted by an entirely different year’s enrolment data (2013-4).

In short, using SatsCan tuition data is a lot like eating sausages: they’re easier to digest if you don’t know how they’re made.

August 29

Predicting the Effects of Australian Fee De-regulation

If the Australian government’s plan on fee-deregulation comes to pass, what follows will be one of the greatest experiments ever in higher education.  Institutions will have the right to set fees exactly as they want, which begs two questions: what will they do with that power, and what will the effects be?

Let’s start with the first question.  When institutions in England were given the freedom to set tuition fees up to a maximum of £9,000, nearly all of them immediately jumped to that maximum from their previous level of about £3,300.   Contrary to the government’s hopes, no one tried to compete on price.  Thus, the ceiling quickly became the mode.

De-regulation proponents in Australia say that won’t happen this time.  The problem in England, they say, was the existence of a ceiling – it gave everyone a point of reference around which to cluster.  Take away the ceiling and genuine competition will occur as universities figure out how to deliver different combinations of price and value.  Opponents say this is wishful thinking – the first set of fees to be announced by a prestige institution (read: Group of 8 member) will become a de facto cap, and hence the standard to which everyone else will gravitate.

There’s a story doing the rounds in Australia that supports this idea.  A few years ago, the government allowed institutions to raise fees by up to 25%, which pretty much all institutions did, apart from Curtin University in Western Australia.  Instantly, Curtin went from being second preference for local applications (behind the University of Western Australia) to third (behind Murdoch University).  Through market research, they found out that because students and their families can’t judge institutional quality, they judge it based on inputs – so when Curtin chose a cheaper price, the signal families received was that Curtin was of inferior quality.

There are contrary examples, of course.  In England, institutions have power to set fees both for international students and taught (i.e. professional) Master’s programs, and there is lots of variation in pricing.  So what’s the difference?  In a word, guaranteed income-contingent student loans with significant forgiveness provisions.  Domestic undergraduates have them, international and taught Master’s students don’t.  All undergraduates can get a loan to cover their fees up-front, and are not on the hook for the whole amount if their post-graduation incomes aren’t high enough.

So let’s apply that lesson to Australia, which also has an income-contingent Higher Education Contribution Scheme, albeit one with less generous repayment subsidies than England’s.  HECS will still insulate students from the main financial consequences of the new fees, and so, as in Britain, they will likely absorb the higher fees with very little effect on enrolment. As a result, institutions will push the fee levels quite high because they can do so without fear of losing students (the exception will be students who learn at a distance – which is a more significant chunk of the student body in Australia than it is in most other OECD countries).  The likelihood is that they will get quite close to the international student level – and they will do so at nearly all institutions.

The real question is: what will institutions do with that money?  The likelihood is that every penny of the extra $5,000 – $10,000 per year students will be asked to pay will be ploughed back into research for prestige reasons.  It won’t be the access disaster some are predicting, but it’s a bad deal for students nonetheless.

August 26

What Students Really Pay

In a couple of weeks, Statistics Canada will publish its annual Tuition and Living Accommodation Cost (TLAC) survey, which is an annual excuse to allow the usual suspects to complain about tuition fees.  But sticker price is only part of the equation: while governments and institutions ask students to pay for part of the educational costs, they also find ways to lessen the burden through subsidies like grants, loan remission, and tax expenditures.  And Statscan never bothers to count that stuff.

Today, we at HESA are releasing a publication called The Many Prices of Knowledge: How Tuition and Subsidies Interact in Canadian Higher Education.  Unlike any previous publication, it looks not just at a single sticker price, but rather at the many different possible prices that students face depending on their situation.  We take ten student cases (e.g. first-year dependent student in college, family income = $80,000; married university student, spousal income = $40,000; etc.), and we examine how much each student would be able to receive in grants, tax credits, and loan remission in each of the ten provinces.  It thus allows us to compare up-front net tuition (i.e. tuition minus grants) and all-inclusive net tuition (i.e. tuition minus all subsidies) not just across provinces, but also across different students within a single province.

Some nuggets:

  • On average, a first-year, first-time student attending university direct from high-school, with a family income of $40,000 or less receives $63 more in subsidies than they pay in tuition, after all subsidies – including graduate rebates – are accounted for (i.e. they pay net zero tuition on an all-inclusive basis).  If they attend college, they receive roughly $1,880 more in subsidies than they pay in tuition (i.e. -$1800 tuition);
  • A first-year, first-time student attending university from a family with $40K in Quebec, after all government subsidies, pays -$393 in all-inclusive net tuition.  In Ontario, the same student pays -$200.  But if we were to include institutional aid, the student in Ontario would likely be the one better off, since students in Ontario with entering averages over 80% regularly get $1,000 entrance awards, while students in Quebec tend not to.  For some students at least, Ontario is cheaper than Quebec;
  • On average, college students who are also single parents receive something on the order of $11,000 in non-repayable aid – that is, about $8,500 over and above the cost of tuition.   In effect, it seems to be the policy of nearly all Canadian governments to provide single parents with tuition plus the cost of raising kids in non-repayable aid, leaving the student to borrow only for his/her own living costs.

The upshot of the study is that Canada’s student aid system is indeed generous: in none of our case studies did we find a student who ended up paying more than 62% of the sticker price of tuition when all was said and done, and most paid far less.  But if that’s the case, why are complaints about tuition so rife?

Two reasons, basically.  First, Canada’s aid system may be generous, but it is also opaque.  We don’t communicate net prices effectively to students because institutions, the provinces, and Ottawa each want to get credit for their own contributions.  If you stacked all the student aid up in a comprehensible single pile, no one would get credit.  And we can’t have that.

The second reason is that Canada only provides about a third of its total grant aid at the point where students pay tuition fees.  Nearly all the rest, stupidly, arrives at the end of a year of studies.  More on that tomorrow.

August 25

Back to School 2014

Morning, all.  Ready for the new school year run-down?

One thing already clear is that pretty much the whole sector has finally come to grips with the reality that annual 4% increases in funding aren’t coming back any time soon. That’s causing institutions to think more strategically than they’ve had to in a long time, which is a Good Thing – the downside is that there appears to be some places where this hard thinking is leading to some fairly ugly clashes between management and labour (hel-lo Windsor!).  Contract negotiations this year could be very interesting.

Federally, the big story will likely be how to make the new Canada First Excellence Research Fund work.  Yeah, remember that?  Will it actually make big investments in big universities, the way its U-15 authors hoped?  Or will the usual Canadian political dynamic intervene and turn it into something that distributes excellence funding more widely?  My money’s on option 2, which means in a few years the U-15 will have to convince people to establish an even newer research fund-distributing body, with even tighter funding award criteria.  Fun times.

The spring budget – the last before the next federal election – will almost certainly be about tax cuts, but it will be interesting to see if the feds think there’s something to be gained politically in more higher education spending.  My guess is no, because CFERF was the Tories’ “big swing” for this mandate.  Provincial budgets, I suspect, will all be status quo, but you never know.  The fact is money’s tight, growth is slow, and almost no one (except possibly Alberta) is looking at good times ahead any time soon.  Frankly, we’re only one good financial crisis away from some more swingeing cuts in public spending.

And speaking of swingeing cuts, some of those are on the table Down Under, along with a very radical plan to de-regulate tuition fees.  I spent part of my summer in Australia and New Zealand learning about some of the many interesting policy developments going on there.  Both countries – so similar to our own, yet with intriguing differences – have important lessons for Canadians on the higher education and skills files, and I’ll be talking a lot about them over the next few months, starting Thursday, with a two-part primer on the Australian de-regulation imbroglio.

One of our big summer projects at HESA towers has been following up on our Net Zero Tuition work with a much more detailed look at how students with specific profiles fare in all ten provinces.  It’s possibly the most detailed look ever taken at how student financial assistance plays out on the ground with real students, and we’ll be releasing it tomorrow, and covering it on the blog both Tuesday and Wednesday.  I look forward to the feedback.

But the real event to look forward to this fall is… the Worst Back-to-School Story of the Year Award!  Now in its third year, this award highlights the most ludicrous, under-researched, over-egged story on higher education.  Previous winners include Carol Goar and Gary Mason.  So far this year the back-to-school journalism scene has been pretty quiet, so the field is wide open.  Do send in any nominations to info@higheredstrategy.com.

Back to work!

June 30

The Effects of Tuition Fees (Part 2)

As I mentioned last week, a major paper I’ve been working on for over a year with colleagues from DZHW on the subject of the effects of fees was published last Monday by the EC (available here).  In my last post, I talked about how fees affected institutions – today, I want to talk about how they affect students.

In our report, we looked at case studies over 15 years (1995-2010) from nine countries – Austria, Canada, England, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, and South Korea.  These countries represent very different experiences.  Some have private higher education, others don’t.  Some have public sectors that change fees, while others don’t (Hungary and Poland are in the middle, where public universities provide education free for some while charging for others).  And looking across all the different cases, we found = the following:

1)      Most tuition increases have no perceptible effect on enrolment.  The only cases where clear-cut effects could be discerned was in England in 2012, where the increase was about $10,000 in a single year, and in the de-regulation of professional fees in Ontario in the mid-90s (where, bizarrely, low-income students were not affected, but middle-income students were).

2)      That said, there are also some clear-cut cases where tuition has been a driver of increased access.  In both Poland and South Korea, major increases in enrolments were driven by the existence of fee-supported places (mainly but not exclusively in private institutions).

3)      Though this is partly a matter of many countries having education data-sets that make Canada’s look enviable, there is very little evidence that changes in fees have done much to change the composition of the student body.  In every country where there is data, underrepresented groups have done better over time, regardless of the fee regime.  Even in the extreme case of England 2012, under-represented groups (the poorest income quintile, black and Asian students) tended to be less affected by the tuition increase than richer, whiter students. (The one exception here is older students, who were disproportionately affected by the changes.)  To the extent that late-entrants to higher education come from poorer backgrounds, this should be seen as a kind of hidden socio-economic effect of fees.

4)      Changes in tuition fees seem to have had no discernible effects on students’ choice of major, and few discernible effects on students’ decisions about where to study (in Canada, for instance, rates of out-of-province study are actually up over the last decade).

5)      It is not so much that fees themselves have no effect; rather, it is that in nearly all cases, fees are introduced with accompanying increases in student aid.  Sometimes it is paltry compared to the size of the fees required (e.g. South Korea in the 90s), sometimes it is implemented in a fairly clunky way (Germany, mid-2000s).  But it is always there to offset the worst effects of fees.  And in the case of England 2012, it was there to ensure that students weren’t required to pay a single extra penny of costs up-front, which seems to have had a major factor in limiting the impact of the world’s largest-ever tuition increase (in the short-term at least).

The lesson here?  Unless you’re planning on going England-style crazy, international evidence fee increases are unlikely to affect access in a measurable way.

June 23

The Effects of Tuition Fees (Part 1)

For the last eighteen months or so, I’ve been working on a project with colleagues Dominic Orr and Johannes Wespel of the Deutsche Zentrum für Hochschul- und Wissenschaftsforschung (DZHW) for the European Commission, looking at the effects of changes in tuition fees and fee policies on institutions and students.  The Commission published the results on Friday, and I want to tell you a little bit about them – this week I’ll be telling you about the effects on institutions, and next week I’ll summarize the results with respect to students.

The first question we answered had to do with whether or not a rise in tuition ultimately benefits higher education institutions.  Critics of fees sometimes suggest that extra fees do not in fact result in institutions receiving more money, because governments simply pull a fast one on the public and withdraw public money from the system, thus leaving institutions no better off.  Our examination of nine case studies revealed there were certainly some occasions where this was the case – Canada in the mid-90s, Austria in 2001, and the UK in 2012 – but that in the majority of cases fee increases were accompanied by stable or increased government funding.  Moreover, in all the cases where there was an accompanying decrease in public funding, it was signalled well in advance by governments, and indeed the increase in fees was deliberately designed to be a replacement for public funds. We did not find a case where a government “pulled a fast one”.

The second question we asked was how universities reacted to the introduction of fees: did they suddenly start chasing money and becoming much more sensitive to the demands of students and donors?  The answer, by and large, was no, for three reasons.  First, tuition isn’t the only financial incentive on offer to institutions; particularly if they are already funded on a per-student basis, the introduction or increase of fees isn’t likely to change behaviour.  Second, institutions won’t go after fees in ways that they think will negatively affect their prestige.  In Germany for instance, many universities have considerable latitude to raise income via teaching through continuing-education-like programs, but effectively they don’t do this, because they believe that engaging in that sort of activity isn’t prestige-enhancing.  And third, institutions often delay altering their behaviour too much because they don’t believe government policy will “stick”.  In Germany, specifically, the feeling was that the introduction of fees was unlikely to last and so there was no point in getting too invested in attracting new students to take advantage of it.

In fact, although fees in public institutions are often touted as a way to make universities more flexible and more responsive to business, the labour force, etc., this never actually works in reality, because universities are saddled with enormous legacy costs (you can close a program, but you still have to pay the profs), and have a particular self-image that means  they closely-tied to traditional ways.  What does seem to work – at least to some degree – is to allow the emergence of new types of higher education institutions altogether.  In Poland, it was only the emergence of private universities that allowed the system to take on the explosion of demand in the 1990s.  In Finland, an entirely new type of higher education institution (ammattikorkeakoulu or “Polytechnics”) was developed to take care of applied education, and accounted for 80% of all enrolment growth since 1995.

Next week: the effects on students.  See you then.

May 26

Tuition Fees and Inequality

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: it’s unfair that some people graduate with debt, and others don’t.  The ones that do tend to have started off poorer to begin with.  And so instead of being a means of social mobility, tuition ends up being a means of perpetuating it – the ones who start off poorer end up poorer.  That’s bad, and that’s why we should have no tuition.  Eliminate tuition and you eliminate inequality.

Let’s take this one-by-one.

First of all, eliminating tuition doesn’t eliminate debt.  Sweden, famously, has both free tuition and significant debt.

Second of all, while the notion that the poor are the ones with debt is mostly true, it’s not entirely so.  Some well-off kids borrow – usually in their fifth year when their parents’ income no longer counts against them in the need assessment process.  And some poorer kids get through without loans by working and living at home.

But the most important of all is a point articulated by the American writer Matt Bruenig in this article: eliminating tuition does not, in any way, change inequality between rich and poor students.  To a large degree, the kids who graduate without debt do so because their parents pay their bills.  If you make tuition free, it reduces (but does not eliminate) the need to borrow; it also means that wealthier parents get to save their money.  The gap between rich parents and poor parents is not made narrower: they are both saving the same amount of money.  And the idea that the gap between graduates is made narrower depends entirely on the notion that rich parents will look at all that money they’re saving and not pass it on to their kids.

Does anyone really believe that?  Does anyone really believe that if rich parents had more money they’d pass less of it on to their kids?  No?  Then your argument relating tuition to the perpetuation of inequality is wrong.

Bruenig makes the argument – correctly – that if you are going to base your tuition policy around the idea that it should serve to reduce inequality (something many sensible people would think is nuts), then the only way to do that is by charging sharply progressive fees.  Ask the kids from poorer families to pay little or nothing, and ask the kids from wealthier families to pay more.  And in practice the way you do that is by charging high fees and off-setting it with need-based grants.

Anything else fails the inequality-reduction test, simple as that.

May 21

Rationalizing Regressive Subsidies

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog analysing the distributional effects of tuition reductions vs. targeted grants, and concluded that the latter was far more progressive in their impact than the former.  In response, Carleton professor Nick Falvo wrote a piece on OCUFA’s Academic Matters website saying that I was “wrong about tuition”.  Because some of his arguments are interesting – to his credit, he didn’t reach for the appalling argument that a regressive distribution of benefits is OK because the rich pay more taxes – I thought I would take some space here to respond.

Although Falvo claims to be demonstrating that my thesis about regressivness is wrong, at no point does he actually address the distribution issue.  Rather, he essentially concedes this point, and then make a series of arguments about why tuition reduction is preferable to targeted grants despite their regressiveness.

Falvo makes five separate arguments about the superiority of a free-tuition arrangement over a tuition-plus-grant arrangement.  The first is that free tuition is more “efficient” than grants because the administration costs are lower. But this is silly.  In fact, SFA administration costs in Canada run about five cents on the dollar.  Why you’d spend billions of dollars on one type of subsidy, just to save a few tens of millions by getting rid of the few hundred public servants who administer the existing programs, is a bit beyond me.

The second argument  is, essentially, that grants don’t work because sometimes tuition rises faster than grants.  But the more efficient solution to this – were this indeed a problem – would of course be to spend more on grants, not decrease tuition.

His third and fourth arguments are mutually contradictory.  One is that targeted subsidies create disincentives to work (the “welfare wall” argument); the other is that targeted grants are too complicated to understand, and that free tuition is more effective because it is easier to understand than a fees-plus-aid strategy.  The first implies that families have quite a good understanding about how subsidies work, and adjust their behaviour accordingly; the second implies that they don’t.  My view is that the second theory is more likely to be the correct one.  Sticker prices are simpler to understand than net prices.  The question really is whether this actually matters.  How much damage does poor communication actually do to access?  Is it sufficiently bad that we should spend an extra couple of billion on it?  For that to be the case, one would need to prove not simply that some people are deterred by financial barriers (undoubtedly true), but that they are deterred in large numbers because of their misunderstanding of extant financial incentives.  On the basis of existing evidence, I’d guess that’s not the case.

Falvo’s final point is that free tuition is a more politically saleable proposition than grants – because more people will benefit, it is easier to create and maintain voting coalitions in favour of it.  Even if that’s true, it is an appalling argument.  Stephen Harper certainly sold the Universal Child Care Benefit much easier than Paul Martin sold the (targeted) expansion of daycare spaces, but that doesn’t make it good public policy.

The argument that the only way, politically, to get a dollar to the youth from the poorest quartile is to give three dollars to youth from the richest quartile is an awfully convenient one… if you’re from the top quartile.  I simply don’t believe we have to settle for a system where the only way to get money to the needy is to buy-off the rich.  And I remain completely baffled why people who claim to be progressive actively promote such an idea.

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