On Campus

No free lunches, tuition fees edition

Everything comes at a price, monetary or not

Attending Memorial, home of the lowest tuition fees for native English speakers in Canada, one rapidly becomes convinced that tuition fees are morally on par with 16th century monetary indulgences – and the student paper, student union, and local student groups of all stripes are a lot more vocal about the eternal need to lower tuition fees than Luther was about his griefs. It’s not just Newfoundland, either. Yesterday saw coordinated rallies across Ontario to protest the cost of tuition.

Now, if I remember correctly, I used to pay $2,550 in tuition each year at Memorial, with a couple hundred tacked on for fees. That’d cover me for ten courses, five each semester. Graduate tuition is even cheaper. Here at the University of Rochester, the cost of tuition for four courses was about $18,700. (Yes, I have a tuition waiver.)

Having gotten used to the perpetual campaign to tax the populace to finance postsecondary education – even for those people who spend literally decades wandering around different departments in pursuit of a solitary bachelor’s – it was with shock I stumbled across an editorial in the student paper down here advocating against a proposal to use the university endowment to lower tuition fees.

Seriously, what does the student body have to lose? This is a chance to run off with someone else’s money! And yet, the students didn’t want it. Oh, and let me dissuade you about the political leanings on campus: the Obama victory parties were pretty nuts Tuesday night. Or so I heard, anyway.

This editorial had one basic proposition, that affordability compromises quality. And they’re right. As much as I’d like it otherwise, the best in education does not come free, but from paying out for a quality product. There is no free lunch.

From this, we can go ‘rattling off in all directions’. Let me toss out a couple of immediate questions that intrigue me. Is there a reason a high-quality education is apparently valued more in the United States than in Canada? (A weak reason is the higher expected taxes on the earnings premium.) How difficult would it be to start a private, world-class research university in Canada? (Consider the success of the Perimeter Institute.) What impact does higher tuition have on the student body makeup? (Each university is probably more homogeneous as students self-select into the amount of human capital they want to invest in, more money redistributed from rich students to smart students, more social mobility for the very bright/hardworking, less so for everyone else.)

Either way, there are books here. But it’s prudent to remember that everything comes at a price, monetary or not.

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