Tuition fee increase debate continues

"Nobody has any idea how student aid works," says post-secondary expert

Alex Usher, who raised a stir this week by suggesting that tuition fee increases are an acceptable means of raising additional funds for institutions hard hit by the economic downturn, has responded to his detractors in the Educational Policy Institute’s Week in Review.

Those with an interest in tuition fee and student financial aid policy should read the whole piece, but the two following passages are particularly well done and are central to Usher’s argument:

“Apparently, no amount of empirical, scientific findings about the determinants of access will change the debate about tuition fees. Over the last ten years, a lot of time, money and effort has gone into trying to figure out the effects of finances on access to PSE, and they have been very hard to find. Basically, at current levels of tuition and current levels of student financial aid, the effects of tuition as a barrier to education appear to be tiny or non-existent. I won’t bore you with the econometric data, but consider the weight of experience: BC raised tuition by 55% in two years in 03-05 – more people went to PSE after the cuts than before. Same with the 50-60% increase in tuition in Ontario in the mid-90s. Same with the 130% increase in Quebec in 90-91. As for the question of *who* goes to school – some of the worst results in terms of access from low-income youth come from Newfoundland, where tuition is quite low. Ontario does pretty well in comparison, even though tuition is around double here what it is there. But absolutely none of this matters, apparently. In the public mind, (and that of politicians, apparently), access is always and everywhere about money.

Nobody has any idea how student aid works. Many people evinced genuine concern about the less fortunate in case if a tuition rise. And of course, they’d be right…if we were to ignore the effects of student aid entirely. But the fact is that the less well-off are to a substantial extent protected by student aid. If their need rises, they don’t automatically get more debt; in many cases, grant and remission programs kick in more aid to help them. I think student aid is going to be called on to help an awful lot of new clients in the next few years – and it will be important for everyone who cares about fairness to defend these programs vigorously in the next little while, because I guarantee that the resulting explosion in program costs is going to make politicians eager to start cutting away at them. And if that means sacrificing programs which are more likely to benefit the wealthy, such as tuition tax credit programs, then so be it.”