Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: United States

June 05

Student Health (Part 3)

You know how it is when someone tries to make a point about Canadian higher education using data from American universities? It’s annoying.  Makes you want to (verbally) smack them upside the head. Canada and the US are different, you want to yell. Don’t assume the data are the same! But of course the problem is there usually isn’t any Canadian data, which is part of why these generalizations get started in the first place.

Well, one of the neat things about the AHCA-NCHA campus health survey I was talking about last week is that it is one of the few data collection instruments that is in use on both sides of the border. Same questions, administered at the same time to tens of thousands of students on both sides of the border. And, as I started to look at the data for 2016, I realized my “Canada is different” rant is – with respect to students and health at least – almost entirely wrong. Turns out Canadian and American students are about as alike as two peas in a pod. It’s kind of amazing, actually.

Let’s start with basic some basic demographic indicators, like height and weight. I think I would have assumed automatically that American students would be both taller and heavier than Canadian ones, but figure 1 shows you what I know.

Figure 1: Median Height (Inches) and Weight (Pounds), Canadian vs. US students.


Now, let’s move over to issues of mental health, one of the key topics of the survey. Again, we see essentially no difference between results on either side of the 49th parallel.

Figure 2: Within the last 12 months have you been diagnosed with/treated for…


What about that major student complaint, stress? The AHCA-NCHA survey asks students to rate the stress they’ve been under over the past 12 months. Again, the patterns in the two countries are more or less the same.

Figure 3: Within the last 12 months, rate the stress you have been under.


One interesting side-note here: students in both countries were asked about issues causing trauma or being “difficult to handle”. Financial matters were apparently more of an issue in Canada (40.4% saying yes) than in the US (33.7%). I will leave it to the reader to ponder how that result lines up with various claims about the effects of tuition fees.

At the extreme end of mental health issues, we have students who self-harm or attempt suicide. There was a bit of a difference on this one, but not much, with Canadian students slightly more likely to indicate that they had self-harmed or attempted suicide.

Figure 4: Attempts at Self-harm/suicide.


What about use of tobacco, alcohol and illicit substances? Canadian students are marginally more likely to drink and smoke, but apart from that the numbers look pretty much the same. The survey, amazingly, does not ask about use of opioids/painkillers, which if books like Sam Quinones’ Dreamland are to be believed have made major inroads among America’s young – I’d have been interested to see the data on that. It does have a bunch of other minor drugs – heroin, MDMA, etc, and none of them really register in either country.

Figure 5: Use of Cigarettes, Alcohol, Marijuana, Cocaine.


This post is getting a little graph-heavy, so let me just run through a bunch of topics where there’s essentially no difference between Canadians and Americans: frequency of sexual intercourse, number of sexual partners, use of most illegal drugs, use of seat belts, likelihood of being physically or sexually assaulted, rates of volunteering….in fact among the few places where you see significant differences between Canadian and American students is with respect to the kinds of physical ailments they report. Canadian students are significantly more likely to report having back pain, Americans more likely to report allergies and sinus problems.

Actually, the really big differences between the two countries were around housing and social life. In Canada, less than 2% of students reported being in a fraternity/sorority, compared to almost 10% in the United States. And as for housing, as you can see Americans are vastly more likely to live on-campus and vastly less-likely to live at home. On balance, that means they are incurring significantly higher costs to attend post-secondary education. Also, it probably means campus services are under a lot more pressure in the US than up here.

Figure 6: Student Living Arrangements.


A final point here is with respect to perceptions of campus safety. We all know the differences in rates of violent crimes in the two countries, so you’d expect a difference in perceptions of safety, right? Well, only a little bit, only at night and mostly- off-campus. Figure 7 shows perceptions of safety during the day and at night, on campus and in the community surrounding campus.

Figure 7: Perceptions of safety on campus and in surrounding community.


In conclusion: when it comes to students health and lifestyle, apart from housing there do not appear to many cross-border differences. We seem to be living in a genuinely continental student culture.

May 25

Big Moves in U.S. Higher Education

The last couple of weeks have seen the unveiling of two massive but interesting strategic gambles taken by a couple of US public universities.  The kind of strategy moves that universities in other countries can only dream about.  I am speaking, of course, about the Purdue’s buy-out of Kaplan University and the University of Arizona’s attempt to create a global set of “microcampuses”.

Let’s start with the Kaplan/Purdue merger/buy-out/service agreement – what is it, exactly?  Well, it isn’t easy to explain.  Basically, Purdue, a prestigious research university in Indiana, has negotiated a deal in which it will create a new, arms-length (meaning not on the public books and not in receipt of public funding) branch of the institution consisting entirely of the operations of Kaplan University, a private for-profit institution with something of a checkered legal history.  Purdue paid Graham Holdings (former owners of the Washington Post) $1 for the deed to the company, but they keep the operating team (and, crucially, the marketing crew) and Graham gets paid to operate the company for up to thirty years (the university has an opt-out clause after six), sharing in the profits along the way.  So on the one hand you could describe it Kaplan being bought out; on another level, you could describe this as a form of Business Process Outsourcing, with Purdue as Kaplan’s only client.

There are two ways of looking at this.  On the one hand, it could be argued that Purdue is making a big bet on adult and online education and is moving to make itself a player in this area in the quickest way possible (buying off the shelf is way better than DIY).  Purdue gets a national network of campuses with a good technological backbone; Kaplan gets a non-profit status and some of Purdue’s prestige.  What’s not to like?

Two things, really.  The first is that we don’t really know why Purdue is doing this.  It could be that they wat to bring a public, research university ethos to the Kaplan network, but there’s not a lot of evidence for that.  For one thing, Kaplan’s marketing team – the one that ran the company straight into a Massachusetts legal battle over claims of high-pressure selling – is intact.  For another, no one’s ever tried merging two education cultures this distinct.  It doesn’t immediately seem like a marriage made in heaven

Claims that this is in fact a reverse take-over – a privatization of public education – are, I think, overblown.  There’s a reasonable chance quite a lot of good could come from this.  But don’t count out the possibility that this could turn into a disaster, too.  No one’s ever tried something like this before, so it’s hard to say.

The other really interesting and bold move came from the University of Arizona, which announced that it is going to create 25 “microcampuses” around the world capable collectively of teaching about 25,000 students per year.  Though U of A is technically the “senior” institution in the state, in terms of innovation it regularly plays second-fiddle to ASU and its hyperactive President, Michael Crow.

The idea of the microcampus is not to create little branch campuses around the world.  Rather, the idea is to embed spaces within partner universities where the two universities can co-deliver certain programs.  There’s a lot of upside to this: students in the host country (at the moment, mainly in Asia and the Middle East) can access an Arizona degree for about a fifth of what it would cost them to up sticks and study in Tucson, partner universities will benefit financially and academically from a permanent teaching partnership with University of Arizona staff, and Arizona gets global exposure while sharing risk with other parties and avoiding the hassle of actually setting up and managing branch campuses.  And – unlike the Purdue/Kaplan arrangement – it has real backing from U of A staff.  It’s a smart move all around.

You may, like me, occasionally ask yourself: why can’t Canadian universities act like that?  Why don’t they have the gumption to try things that are big, different and global?  Often, when making Canada-US university comparisons the answer is “well, private universities have more money/flexibility”.  But that’s not the case here: Purdue and Arizona are public universities.  There’s no reason that a Dalhousie or U of T couldn’t do the same.

Americans just have more chutzpah, period.  We could use more of it up here.


April 11

Populists and Universities, Round Two

There is a lot of talk these days about populists and universities.  There are all kinds of thinkpieces about “universities and Trump”, “universities and Brexit”, etc.  Just the other day, Sir Peter Scott delivered a lecture on “Populism and the Academy” at OISE, saying that over the past twelve months it has sometimes felt like universities were “on the wrong side of history”.

Speaking of history, one of the things that I find a bit odd about this whole discussion is how little the present discussion is informed by the last time this happened – namely, the populist wave of the 1890s in the United States.  Though the populists never took power nationally, they did capture statehouses in many southern and western states, most of whom had relatively recently taken advantage of the Morrill Act to establish important state universities.  And so we do have at least some historical record to work from – one that was very ably summarized by Scott Gelber in his book The University and the People.

The turn-of-the-20th-century populists wanted three things from universities. First, they wanted them to be accessible to farmers’ children – by which they meant both laxer admissions standards and “cheap”.  That didn’t necessarily mean they wanted to increase expenditures on university budgets substantially (though in practice universities did OK under populist governors and legislators); what it meant was they wanted tuition to remain low and if that entailed universities having to tighten their belts, so be it.  And the legacy of the populists lives on today: average state tuition in the US still has a remarkable correlation to William Jennings Bryan’s share of the vote in the 1896 Presidential election.


Fig 1: 2014-15 In-State Tuition Versus William Jennings Bryan’s Vote Share in 1896

Populism Graph


The second thing populists wanted was more “practical” education.  They were not into learning for the sake of learning, they were into learning for the sake of material progress and making life easier for workers and farmers; in many ways, one could argue that their attitude about the purpose of higher education was pretty close to that of Deng/Jiang-era China.  And to some extent they were pushing on an open door because the land-grant universities – particularly the A&Ms – were already supposed to have that mandate.

But there was a tension in the populists’ views on curriculum.  They weren’t crazy about law and humanities programs at state universities (too much useless high culture that divided the masses from the classes), but they did grasp that an awful lot of people who were successful in politics had gone through law and humanities programs and – so to speak – learned the tricks of the trade there (recall that rhetoric was one of the seven Liberal arts which still played a role in 19th century curricula).  And so, there was also concern that if public higher education were made too vocational, its beneficiaries would still be at a disadvantage politically.  There were various solutions to this problem, not all of which were to the benefit of humanities subjects, but the key point was this: universities should remain places where leaders are made.  If that meant reading some Marcus Aurelius, so be it: universities were a ladder into the ruling class, and the populists wanted to make sure their kids were on it.

And here, I think is where times have really changed. The new populists are, in a sense, more Gramscian than their predecessors.  They get that universities are ladders to power for individuals, but they also understand that the cultural function of universities goes well beyond that.  Universities are – perhaps even more so than the entertainment industry – arbiters of acceptable political discourse.  They are where the hegemonic culture is made.  And however much they may want their own kids to get a good education, today’s populists really want to smash those sources of cultural hegemony.

This is, obviously, not good for universities.  We can – as Peter Scott suggested – spend more time trying to make universities “relevant” to the communities that surround them.  Nothing wrong with that.  We can keep plugging away at access: that’s a given no matter who is in power.  But on the core issue of the culture of universities, there is no compromise.  Truth and open debate matter.  A commitment to the scientific method and free inquiry matter.  Sure, universities can exist without these things: see China, or Saudi Arabia.  But not here.  That’s what makes our universities different and, frankly, better.

No compromise, no pasarán.

March 17

Lower Ed

It’s only March, but I’m declaring the Higher Ed book of the year competition closed. No one is going to beat Tressie McMillan Cottom’s book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy. It is genius.

Before I start praising this book to the skies, it’s worth noting that this is a very American book. Anyone looking for insights into for-profits outside the United States should look elsewhere: the insights generated here do not translate well to other countries. This isn’t a fault: American authors use a kind of ex-cathedra voice saying “this is how it is” because it doesn’t occur to their publishers that there is a world outside the US worth catering to. So when they say “this is how it is” they mean “this is how it is in the US”. This is not a fault of the author, but something to keep in mind while reading it.

What makes McMillan Cottom’s story different from other good accounts of the private higher education market (see for instance A.J. Angulo’ Diploma Mills) is her experience within the industry. After graduating from her Bachelor’s program, she worked in the industry both in the “mom-and-pop” sector of the industry (that is, colleges that are locally owned small-ish business) and the new breed of national chain schools, owned by NYSE-listed companies whose approach to the industry is to simply, relentlessly, make money. She knows the industry from the inside out. As part of the sales force in these two companies, she has a deep understanding not just of the sales techniques, but of the customer base as well.

As was the case for last year’s One Thought book of the year, Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price, it’s the way the author allows students to speak for themselves which is so arresting. But in this case it’s an even more stunning technique because for-profit schools themselves have been so misunderstood. McMillan Cottom pushes back – hard – on the idea that private-college students are simply low-information students, that it is in part through ignorance that they attend such high-risk/low-reward institutions. While agreeing that many students are only dimly aware, if at all, of the prestige ladder of higher education and where these institutions fall within it, she counters by saying that what these students understand above all is a form of education gospel – that education and only education will lead them to success. And what for-profit colleges do, primarily, is find ways to satisfy that need in a way with a level of convenience that public colleges choose not to match.

The ridiculously complicated FAFSA (student aid) process? They take care of that for you. Complicated class schedule? They simplify that too. A need to wait until next September to start classes? Nu-uh: in private colleges, intakes start every month, so you can get started right away. If you’re mid-career and need some education to change your life who wants to hang around waiting for months to get started? So what’s the problem?

The problem of course is that return on investment on these course is usually terrible, with students getting sucked far into debt to get credentials that tend not to qualify them for jobs that would make the expense worthwhile. But if states put licensure requirements on – say – hairdressing, which pays maybe $12-15/hour, then what they are actually doing is allowing the people who provide training to enter that field to extract massive amounts of rent. It’s crazy to pay $20,000 for a hairdressing course to get a job that pays so little. But the alternative is no education and no job. And so the schools continue to attract students.

Eventually, as the scale of the con became apparent to her, McMillan Cottom quit the industry to start a PhD in sociology at Emory (key detail: Emory said yes even though the start of class was only a month away – the speed of the application turnaround was consequential). The result of that PhD was this book. It contains some elements which are very traditionally academic, such as a systemic look at how the industry was transformed when big chains of schools took over the market in the aughts, at right around the same time as the US economy began its long, post-dotcom decline. But it also contains some deeply original and arresting moments, such as overheard snippets of conversation in shopping malls.

McMillan Cottom’s critique goes beyond the predatory recruitment techniques of for-profit colleges. She sees them, in a sense, as a natural outgrowth of the current moment of capitalism (she would use the phrase “neo-liberalism”, which makes my teeth ache a bit, even though she uses the term in a more rigorous way than almost anyone else I’ve ever read). If good jobs are becoming scarce and education is required to get those jobs, and public education is insufficiently funded and public post-secondary institutes don’t do their job in terms of making themselves truly accessible (in terms of making enrolment convenient and easily understandable), then yeah – somebody is going to fill that market niche. So is the problem the niche-fillers or the failure of the political system to prevent that niche from opening in the first place?

Anyways, don’t take my word for it. Read it yourself. You won’t be sorry.


February 08

New York, New York

With the Republicans in control of both Congress and the White house for at least the next two years, the fight for “free tuition” is moving to the state level.  And so to New York, where Governor Cuomo has proposed a form of “free tuition” for anyone attending the City University of New York (CUNY) or the State University of New York (SUNY) and whose family earns less than $125,000.  So what does this mean exactly?

Well, to be clear, it’s not the same kind of free tuition Hillary Clinton was offering back in the election campaign.  (There are many kinds of free tuition, as I noted back here; refresh your memory, if you like).  Clinton was offering – with scant details – a vision where with enough federal funds, states and their public university systems would agree to stop charging tuition fees to students from families below $125,000 in income (or, roughly, 80% of the student population.  That idea was always a little bit pie-in-the-sky: the impracticalities of it were well covered by Kevin Carey at the time.  What Cuomo is offering instead is a top-up plan to make tuition “net free”.  Basically, he’s going to offer students below the cut-off line whatever amount of grants it takes to equal the amount they pay in tuition.  This payment, to be known as an ‘Excelsior Scholarship” (really), is thus equivalent to tuition minus any grants the student is already receiving from the federal or state governments via the Pell grant system.

Now, you might be saying to yourself: hey, that kind of sounds like the Ontario model.  That’s good, isn’t it?  To which the answer is: yes, it is a lot like the Ontario model.  It’s income-targeted net free tuition.  Except a) in some respects it’s going to be more like New Brunswick, with a big step-function (link to: ) at $125,001 instead of a nice smooth slope of benefits like Ontario and b) the threshold for getting full benefits is ludicrously high and has perverse consequences.

What do I mean by perverse consequences?  Well, the thing is that for students at the low-income level of the spectrum, federal and state grants already equal tuition.  So literally none of the money involved here is going to help them.  The biggest winners in the Cuomo proposal are precisely those people who get no grants right now – basically from families with about $80K and up in family income.  And yet these are the people who have the least trouble going to college right now.

The question here is: if you have a couple of hundred million dollars to spend, why would you give it to a group of people who have no issue attending in the first place?  Why not put money where it will be most effective? Columbia University’s Judith Scott-Clayton suggests there’s good evidence that money going to institutions creates better access outcomes than simply limiting the price.

Even Chile, once very keen on full “gratuidad”, has belatedly come around to this realization.  For budgetary reasons, the government was forced to limit its recent introduction of “free” tuition to students from families in the bottom six deciles of income.  This summer, the Chilean Treasury Department published cost estimates for the program.  In its present state the fully-phased in cost of the program will be 607 billion pesos (about $1.25 billion Canadian, or about $950M American).  Adding each of the next four deciles raises the price by about 350 billion, or 58%.  That is to say, free tuition for everyone would cost over 2 trillion pesos, or over three times as much as it costs for the bottom six deciles.  That difference is equal to 1.5% of GDP.  And what would be the purpose of spending all that money?  The very fact that it costs so much is a reflection of the fact that participation from these groups is already so high they don’t really need government help.  What kind of socialist government prioritizes handing over 1.5% of GDP to families in the top four income deciles?

In short, while targeted free tuition makes a great deal of sense, it really does need to be targeted.  If targeting weakens, the program becomes more expensive and less effective.  New York’s plan, clearly, suffers from insufficient targeting.  Ontario’s plan has it about right.  But beware: the Premier occasionally muses about extending the plan to higher income groups and there’s certainly a chance such an idea will make it into the policy conversation as the provincial election approaches.  That way madness and much wasted public funding lies.

January 19

American Higher Education Under Trump

Tomorrow, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States (actually, the 44th person to be President: Grover Cleveland’s two non-consecutive terms screw up the count).  What does this mean for higher education?

First off, let’s recollect that where higher education is concerned, the US, like Canada, is a federation where the main decisions about funding public education are made at the state level. Decreased state investment in institutions and consequent rises in tuition have given the federal government a larger though indirect role in the system because the salience of student aid has risen.  And of course, the government spends an awful lot of money on scientific research, primarily but not exclusively through the National Institutes for Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).  And let’s also recollect that while the President names the Secretary of Education, a lot of control over specific budget items rests with Congress, which, despite being controlled by Republicans, will have ideas of their own.

Recall that Trump barely spoke about higher education during the campaign, other than endorsing an even-more-expensive version of income-based repayment than the existing one which was recently discovered to be costing nearly over $50 billion more than expected (short version: he wants to raise the repayment maximum from 10% of income to 12.5% but shorten the time before forgiveness to just 15 years).  Also, his education secretary Betsy DeVos, is a K-12 specialist (I’m using the term loosely) with very few known views on higher education.  I think it’s a given that their instincts will anti-regulatory and pro-market (which means things are looking up for private for-profits), but it’s hard to see them initiating a lot of new policy.  Which means the policy reins, such as they are, will likely be held by the Republican Congress and not the White House.

So what to expect?  Well, I think we can rule out any continuation of the Obama White House’s free college agenda, or anything vaguely like it.  That idea won’t disappear, but it’s something that’s going to happen in the states rather than in DC (witness Andrew Cuomo’s decision earlier this month to launch his own Ontario-like free tuition-plan).  Beyond that, you’re likely to see some cutting back on institutional reporting requirements, particularly with respect to Title IX, the federal law on sex-discrimination in education, and possibly a push towards more competency-based education.

Where it gets interesting, though, is on student-aid.  It’s not just that we’re likely to see cuts in things like loans to graduate students and (pace Trump’s own views) loan forgiveness.  We may see a return to more private capital in student loans (which would mostly be a bad things); we may also see institutions be required to pay for some of the costs of their own students’ loan defaults (an idea colloquially referred to as requiring institutions to have “skin in the game”.  Some think that the new Congress may push what are known as “Income Share Agreements”, which are kind of like graduate taxes only the entity giving the student money and then collecting a percentage of income afterwards is some kind of private investment firm rather than government.  One of the most crazy/plausible ideas I’ve heard is from University Ventures’ Ryan Craig who mused recently on twitter about setting rules whereby institutions might have to provide a certain fraction of total aid via ISAs in order to be eligible to receive federal aid.

On the research side: who knows?  Clearly, climate science is going to have a hard time.  But health sciences often do well under Republicans; the National Institutes of Health went from $18 billion/year to $30 billion/year under Bush Jr, for instance.  And Trump might decide to do something big and crazy like announcing a lunar base or a Mars mission (the former is a favourite of Newt Gingrich, the latter an obsession of Elon Musk, who suddenly seems quite close with the incoming White House), either of which would have substantial positive ramifications for university science budgets.  So we’ll see.

But put all this into some perspective: as far as Congressional priorities are concerned, changes to student aid are going to come several light years behind repealing Obamacare and dismantling various environmental protections.  The former in particular has some pretty serious budget impacts as repealing Obamacare is going to cost a ton of money.  That’s going to cause a scramble for offsetting budget cuts – one could imagine some pretty big across-the-board cuts in which higher education-related programs will simply be collateral damage.

It’s bound to be interesting, anyway.  Though I for one am glad I get to watch it all from a safe distance.

October 19

The Yale Tuition Postponement Option

If you pay attention to student assistance, you know about income-contingent loans.  And if you’ve heard about income-contingent loans, you probably know that the first national scheme debuted in Australia back in the late 1980s.  You might even know that the first theoretical exploration of income-contingent loans was made by Milton Friedman back in the 1950s (actually, he was talking more about human-capital contracts, but close enough.  And you might occasionally wonder: why did it take 30 years to go from idea to implementation?  Well, the answer is that it didn’t: there was an intermediate stage in which a couple of universities tried to run their own income-contingent loan programs.

The year is 1971. Private 4-year universities were probably at their lowest-ever ebb relative to the big public flagships: massive amounts of public money had been pouring into public universities while privates had yet to really perfect their practice of extracting mega-millions from loaded donors.  But Inflation is starting to rise in America as a result of a decade worth of a guns AND butter fiscal policy.  And so schools like Yale began to think about raising tuition to meet higher costs and regain their place at the top of the academic dog-heap.

Enter economist James Tobin – a man who within a decade would win a Nobel Prize and is today mostly known for his advocacy of a beloved-of-the-left tax on financial transactions (the eponymous “Tobin Tax”).  Room and board at Yale College at the time was $3,900 (yes, I know, I know).  The university wanted to raise fees by about $1500 over the next five years, and so President Kingman Brewster (the model for Walden University’s President King in the comic strip Doonesbury) asked Tobin to come up with a scheme that would allow the institution raise said money without putting too much stress on students.

The result was something called the Yale Tuition Postponement Option.  Students could choose to defer part of their tuition (the part that came on top of the pre-1971 $3,900) until after graduation.  Repayment was a function of both loan balance and income: borrowers were required to repay 0.4% of their income for every $1,000 of tuition postponed (a minimum payment of $29/month was set).  Repayments could take as long as 35 years although it was expected to take less time than that.

There was a catch, though.  Loan programs lose money through defaults.  These either have to be made up through subsidy (which is what happens in most government student loan programs) or mutual insurance among borrowers.  Yale had no intention of subsidizing these loans, and so went the latter route.  These were therefore in effect group loans – you kept paying until your entire borrowing cohort had repaid.  You could escape this only by paying 150% of your initial loan and accrued interest.

You can imagine how this went.  A lot of students borrowed, but there was a fair bit of adverse selection (people who worried about their incomes opted-in, people who thought they would earn a lot opted-out).   And as time went on, a lot of graduates groused about subsidizing their less-successful classmates.  The program was phased out in 1977-78 because federal student aid was becoming more generous and because the university was starting to twig to both the problem of adverse-selection program and the problem of keeping in contact with graduates and getting them to voluntarily disclose their incomes.  Eventually, amidst rising alumni discontent, the program was wound up in 2001 and outstanding debts assumed by the University (which by this time could easily afford to do so).

The failure of the Yale Plan was certainly one reason why people were scared off income-contingency for another decade or so, until a reformist Australian government picked up the idea again in the late 1980s.  But from a policy perspective it was not a total loss.  One Yale student who enrolled in the program – fellow by the name of Clinton – thought it was a great idea.    He made it a center-piece of his 1992 election campaign, and an income-contingent tuition option was in place by 1994.  That specific policy never took off, but most of the income-based repayment plans (which are now used by 40% of all borrowers) owe their start to this program.

So, a failure for Yale perhaps.  But a long-term win for American students.

October 11

Hillary’s Higher Education Plans

Barring some sort of catastrophe, it now seems pretty clear that Hillary Clinton will be the 45th President of the United States.  There is a reasonable chance (51.6% in Monday’s FiveThirtyEight forecast) that the Democrats could regain the Senate and an outside chance that they could also regain the House.   Those odds probably change a bit in the Democrats’ favour once some post-grope polls come out later this week, but the basic outline of a post-November 7 world – Hillary in charge, with a split Congress – is now pretty clear.  What does it mean for higher education?

Well, you wouldn’t know it from any of the debates – we’ve now gone 270 minutes without a single second being spent on education – but higher education is a major plank in Hillary’s platform.  But her policies on higher education have evolved somewhat over the course of the campaign, mostly because her primary opponent Bernie Sanders’ success with millennials convinced her she needed a big, expensive, youth-oriented policy, and higher education (apparently) is it.

Hillary’s plan, release just prior to the July convention and known as “The New College Compact” consists of two pillars.  The first involves creating a system of “free tuition” at public universities for students from families with under $125,000 by 2021 (it would start at $85,000 in 2017 and rise by $10K each year thereafter) .  On the fact of it, this is a bit like what the Ontario Liberals and the Chilean socialists have developed, only more generous (i.e., using a higher cut-off point).  But the costing on this plan is – to put it mildly – hazy.  Her costing documents speak of spending $450 billion over ten years, but the tuition take from 4-year public alone is north of $55 billion, and that’s not including either the cost of 2-year colleges or the extra costs that would accrue if free tuition induced hundreds of thousands of students from private colleges to switch into the public system (the New America Foundation has correctly warned that not including funding for system growth could well result in a reduction of access for lower-income and minority students as middle-class students switching from privates could push out less-prepared lower-income kids from a fixed number of spaces).

The problem here is that the US (like Canada) is a federal system, with education a responsibility of the states.  The federal government can promising anything it likes about tuition, but at the end of the day it is states who have the final say.  The best the feds can do is work out a system of carrots and sticks to entice the states into a program.  The wording of the plan seems to imply that states who want to get reduce tuition will sign up for grants from Washington in return for meeting certain conditions – one of them being pouring more money of their own into their systems.  But the progress of Obamacare, which required considerably less from states but has only brough two-third of states on board so far, should give everyone pause.  On top of that, of course, the President alone can’t appropriate funds unilaterally.  Congress would need to be on-side as well, and the Democrats are still a long way from being able to make that happen.  Which is why most higher education analysts in the US seem to assume that the plan is more talk than action: a rhetorical statement which can attract voters rather than a plan likely to be implemented.

The second part of the Clinton plan involves a three-month moratorium on student loan repayment allowing all borrowers – including those in repayment – to re-finance their loans at a lower rate.  There is a fair amount of scepticism about how effective this measure might be.  As Robert Kelchen of Seton Hall University (possibly the shrewdest US student loans pundit out there), wrote in The Conversation a couple of months ago, the most-indebted graduates tend not to be the ones with the high default rates because default is most commonly associated with dropouts and hence lower levels of debt, and also because over 40% of borrowers in the US are now in income-based plans and so changing the level of interest will have minimal effects on repayments.  In other words, it will be a big income transfer to younger Americans, but not necessarily one that will do much to increase access or reduce defaults.

So after the election, what we can probably expect is a situation quite similar to what we had prior to 2014: a President and a Senate with a desire to make college more affordable (though not necessarily in particularly efficient ways), with a House implacably opposed and states offering indifferent support.  But a catastrophic Republican result in the House – which remains a possibility following this weekend’s stampede of defections – might result in some very rapid and drastic policy changes from the new administration.

Stay tuned for November 8th. 

June 14

Affordability of Higher Education in Canada and the United States

About a decade ago, my colleague Kim Steele and I did a comparison of the affordability of public higher education in all ten Canadian provinces and fifty US states. In general, Canadian provinces did not do well; yes, Canada has lower costs for students, but its student aid system is less generous and – this is worth remembering – Americans are wealthier than we are. And so, once you adjust costs and net costs for family purchasing power, it turned out there was a substantial affordability gap in Americans’ favour.However, things have changed a lot in the intervening decade. Tuition has increased at a faster pace in the US than in Canada, and while both countries have made improvements in student aid, the gap in median household incomes has narrowed substantially due to the severity of the recession in the US. And so my colleague Jacqueline Lambert and I thought it would be fun to re-run some of those comparisons. We’ll be publishing our full 60-jurisdiction report in the fall but it seemed like it would be fun to give you some top-level comparisons right now.

First, a brief methodological note on this comparison. We take six different measures of cost (see table below) and divide each of them by each nation’s median household income. We do this because affordability by definition is a function of a household’s ability to pay – simply comparing costs, which on their own are meaningless.


Most of this data is easily available from various official sources (email me if you’re curious).  The exception is living costs because while Canada occasionally produces student income/expenditure surveys (we at HESA have done a few of these), Americans simply don’t.  Not on a national basis, anyways.  When you hear American student aid analysts talk about “cost of attendance”, what they’re referring to are institutional estimates of costs to live on- or off-campus which form the basis of student aid need assessment.  Sometimes these estimates make sense, sometimes they are batshit crazy (do read the New America Foundation’s recent series on this issue, available here. Regardless, they’re the only data we have.

In our 2006 paper, we used US figures for on-campus housing and in Canada we used results from an Ekos survey for living expenses.  Here’s how affordability stacked up then:

Figure 1: Canada vs. US Cost Comparisons, 2002-03 

American tuition and living costs were both 15-20% higher than Canadian ones, but once adjusted for household income they were roughly the same – education costs in both countries came out to 11% of median household income and total costs were 23-24%. Where the Americans had a real advantage was in loans: the ubiquity of loans meant that Americans were much less credit-constrained than Canadians and had to dig into their pockets much less in the short term. Result: on the most inclusive measures of affordability, Americans looked better than we did in 2002-03.

Now on to a more recent comparison, after a recession and many policy changes on both sides of the border. We’ve refined the US living cost data by using a weighted average of on-campus and off-campus housing costs, and to make the Canadian data more comparable we’ve chosen to use CSLP living cost estimates for Canada rather than actual survey data (nationally, the two are within 5% of one another, so it’s not a big change in practice). Here’s how the data looks for 2013-14:

Figure 2: Canada vs. US Cost Comparisons, 2013-14


What happened? How does Canada now look so much more affordable? Well, not much on the income side; in fact US median household income grew slightly faster on the American side. But tuition grew a lot faster in the US than it did in Canada. So, interestingly, did American students’ living costs; in 2003 they were 18% higher than in Canada; now they are 86% higher. To some extent, the increase in US living costs is due to our methodological change of including off-campus housing costs. That said, US cost of attendance is truly rising quickly for reasons which are not entirely clear.

Some policy measures have kicked in to offset these rises. Grant dollars per student in the US have risen by over 170% in the past decade, and loans per student have risen 64%. Both these figures far outstrip the equivalent figures in Canada. But it’s not enough to close the widening cost gap. On the most inclusive measure of affordability – out-of-pocket costs after tax expenditures – Canadian families must spend 11.9% of median household income (compared to 13.1% a decade ago) while Americans must spend 20.8%, up from just 9.7% a decade ago.

Plenty of food for thought – on both sides of the border.

June 09

Modes of College-Going

At HESA towers, we’ve recently been looking at some data on student costs of living in various countries.  This has prompted a number of observations with respect to the ways in which higher education – however global and transnational it may occasionally appear to be – is still deeply rooted in national cultures.

One of the things that started us going down this route was looking at estimates of cost of living for American students.  Everyone of course knows that students at American universities live in relative luxury what with the hotel-style dormitories, gourmet food options, climbing walls, lazy rivers and whatnot.  But what kind of staggered us when we took a look at the data was that American students actually appear to be paying *more* once they leave campus.  According to IPEDS, On-campus cost of living is $11,795 (C$14,792), off-campus (not with parents) cost of living is $12,986 (C$16,484) (for comparison, surveys show average living costs of off-campus not-with-parents in Canada is around C$8,500).

Now take this data with a grain of salt: American cost-of-living data is not based on surveys as it is in Canada, but on a compilation of institutional estimates of costs of living (at diligent institutions this may be based on student surveys but at less diligent institutions it may be a number dreamt up with a view to making students eligible for larger sums of students loans).  But at a deeper level there is a truth here.  American families (middle-class ones anyway) do view the higher education experience in a slightly different way than Canadians do.  Up here, there is a sense that post-secondary is a time when students “pay their dues” and live frugally; in the US, college is supposed to be “the best four years” of a student’s life.  And that materially affects the standard of living we expect students to maintain which in turn affects how much students “need” in order to attend college.  And apparently, that amount is “nearly twice as much per year as in Canada”.

Or, take the UK.  This is a country where over 70% of students leave home to go to school.  This has been falling gradually from the low 90%s twenty years ago, but the fall has been very gradual and seemingly unrelated to spikes in tuition fees (the increasing proportion of students from non-white backgrounds, who may not subscribe to this cultural tradition, is a likelier culprit.  You’d think that as tuition went from $0 to $16,000 you might get a *little* bit of price response, but no: spending huge wodges of cash to live away from home is so ingrained as a being part of the “university experience” that even big increases in costs (both tuition and, if you’re studying in London, rent) make little dent in the practice. 

Of course, in some parts of Europe, it’s the opposite: almost nothing gets students out of the house in Italy and Greece (even with low or no tuition): living away from parents simply isn’t part of the DNA.  In theory that should make higher education more accessible because it’s cheaper, but there’s not much evidence that’s the case.  In Scandinavia, people tend to draw out their time in universities, entering later and spending a lot of time switching back and forth between school and the labour market (more on that here). Result: on average, Scandinavian students are a *lot* older than North American ones.  Similarly: in South Korea, males have to do (roughly) two years of universal military service, which for reasons which I’ve never been able to work out, most males do in the *middle* of their university career (a common pattern is to do military service after sophomore year), which means their time-to-completion stats look very weird.

Anyways, the point of all this is simply to  remember that while higher education is a “common” global experience which a growing percentage of the world’s youth undergo, it remains embedded in some deeply national cultures about how students should transition from youth to adulthood.  It’s a major reason why access and student aid policy doesn’t travel well; it’s also why international comparisons  of students and student outcomes need to be done *very* carefully.

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