Tuition is a 'useless concept,' argues op-ed

Higher published prices could actually be better for less-affluent families

Tuition numbers, which don't offer students and their families a full explanation of why colleges charge what they do, should be replaced with more comprehensive figures, Danielle Allen writes in an op-ed for the Washington Post

Allen, a political theorist at Harvard University, calls for Congress to remove from the Higher Education Act the requirement that colleges publish a tuition number.

Instead, she argues, colleges should publish:

  • How much the institution spends annually on teaching each student;
  • The expected family contribution range;
  • The average family contribution;
  • The range of contribution the college provides to each student; and
  • How much the college contributes on average to each student.

Allen explains that at Ivy League institutions and top liberal arts colleges, tuition is only a sticker price. Therefore, most families pay less than this number based on their level of financial need. Tuition increases are only relevant to students whose families pay the full amount, she says.

Allen argues that for students who receive financial aid, changes to aid policies have a much bigger effect on their ability to pay for college. However, she says, little is known about these policies.

Read more: Tuition discount rates hit a record high—again

Furthermore, the actual cost of educating each student far exceeds the sticker price at the most selective institutions, according to Allen. She bases this conclusion on research into cost-per-student figures at liberal arts colleges, where the figure is easier to calculate because the institutions focus more narrowly on undergraduate education.

Students don't speak "financial aid." Make sure your messages don't get lost in translation

Allen says that tuition at elite institutions is a delicate balance of list price and financial aid. A lower sticker price means allowing more-affluent families to pay less than they could for an education that is actually worth much more, Allen says.

On the other hand, a higher sticker price can be adjusted for lower-income families with financial aid in a more focused, strategic way.

Institutions with higher sticker prices are essentially asking families that can pay more to actually do so, Allen argues, so that the college can focus its financial aid on the families that need it.  

How do students really feel about affordability? Here's what they told us.

"Decisions about how to set 'tuition' are having impacts that are the reverse of what our instincts tell us about what a higher or lower number means," Allen writes. "A price that goes up is good for the worst off. A price that goes down is bad for them" (Allen, Washington Post, 8/19). 


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