Posted by: Gregory Linton | 06/08/2018

Government report on apprenticeship expansion promotes fake news about affordability of higher education

On May 10, 2018, the Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion released its “Final Report to: The President of the United States.” In the course of making the case for expanding opportunities for apprenticeships, the report inexplicably includes gratuitous attacks on higher education. These ill-informed criticisms repeat and reinforce “fake news” about higher education. I will analyze these statements to show how they distort the truth about higher education.

This task force was formed by the Secretary of Labor in November 2017 in response to an Executive Order from the President of the United States. The 23-member task force included the secretaries of the Departments of Education and Commerce and leaders in higher education, labor, and commerce. The two main representatives of higher education were Walter Bumphus, President and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, and Mark B. Rosenberg, member of the Board of Directors of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. Apparently, these delegates from higher education could not or did not prevent the task force from promoting fake news about higher education. The next three posts will clear up the following misconceptions promoted by this report:

  • Higher education is unaffordable.
  • Higher education does not provide economic benefits.
  • Higher education results in unmanageable student loan debt.

The report states that “higher education is a narrow path that is not working for enough young people, in part because it is becoming increasingly unaffordable and no longer guarantees a middle-class income.” Of course, one can marshal evidence to support the statement that higher education is becoming unaffordable, although the report itself makes no effort to do so. For example, Carnevale and Cheah (2018) observe that “since 1980, tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities have risen 19 times faster than average family incomes” (p. 3). In addition, College Board’s Trends in College Pricing 2017 reports that average published tuition and fees for full-time in-state students at public four-year institutions rose 3.13 times from $3,190 in 1987-1988 to $9,970 in 2017-2018 (Figure 3).

However, when we look at net prices rather than published prices, a different picture emerges. In 1997-1998, net tuition and fees at public four-year institutions was $2,180 (in 2017 dollars) and had risen to $4,140 by 2017-2018 (p. 18). This still seems very affordable, especially in light of the return on that investment. Adding room and board to the expenses increases the amount considerably from $8,830 in 1997-1998 to $14,940 in 2017-2018.

Certain sectors of higher education may be out of reach for lower-income students, but there are still many affordable options. Online programs would avoid the room and board expense that drives up the cost dramatically. The average net tuition and fees at public two-year institutions in 2017-2018 was -$330 (p. 17). Even highly selective private institutions such as Princeton University and Davidson College have adopted policies to ensure affordability for low-income students.

The danger of a sweeping generalization that higher education is unaffordable is that it can discourage lower-income students from looking beyond the sticker shock of published prices to find more affordable options. And it also overlooks the fact that the upfront investment in higher education produces substantial long-term returns, which is the subject of the next post.


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