Keeping college unaffordable

Harvard University students chat in the quad on campus

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: What state do you live in? Chances are pretty good it received a failing grade from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. The Center recently issued a report card that graded states on efforts to keep higher education affordable. 43 of 50 states got an F. The report found college costs have risen much faster than financial aid or incomes. That's not all. A new trend threatens to push higher education even farther out of reach for many families. Journalist and commentator Kim Clark explains.


KIM CLARK: Most students and parents are not aware that a growing number of colleges are hiring mathematicians, demographers and even rocket scientists to secretly research how little financial aid they can get away with offering while still attracting great students.

These so-called "enrollment managers" develop mathematical formulas using as many as 100 factors about each student to calculate the smallest amount of grants it will take to get admitted students to enroll.

Their research is so sophisticated that often it seems the college know the students better than the students know themselves. Some raise or lower the amount of scholarships depending on factors such as the parents' educational records, the past behavior of similar students from similar schools, and sometimes even seemingly innocent details such as the order the student listed schools on their federal financial aid application.

Schools say they have to perfect the science of enrollment management because times are tough. And they say they need to keep these policies secret because they don't want anyone to game the system.

But as any freshman in Econ 101 will tell you, markets only work when they are transparent. You need a fair balance of information and negotiating power on each side.

At the very least, by keeping these policies secret and making financial aid awards so complicated, colleges sow confusion. And then inevitably some students end up mistakenly paying more for college than they should.

At worst, colleges can exploit their information advantage to manipulate students into making decisions that increase the college's revenue while making students poorer.

These days, young people have less consumer protection when they make the six-figure college decision than when they buy a 79-cent box of Jell-O. If we make grocery stores clearly display their prices before you get to the cash register, why don't we do the same for colleges?

THOMAS: Kim Clark writes for U.S. News and World Report. In Los Angeles, I'm Mark Austin Thomas.

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