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Insert Economist Joke Here

November 23, 2009, 1:41 pm

So much wrong in such a short paragraph:

Students at University of California schools have been protesting the decision of the Board of Regents “to raise undergraduate fees — the equivalent of tuition — 32 percent next fall.” But higher tuition, if it is accompanied with higher financial aid for lower- and middle-income students, improves equity

This, the start of a longer article by Ian Ayres at the Freakonomics blog of the New York Times, continues the argument about equity and tuition to reach triumphantly the conclusion that “By increasing the effective tuition for some of our wealthier students, we might be able to reduce the price for some of the less wealthy.” In other words, the tuition raise could be a good thing.

Reading it, I boggled. It’s a particular kind of context-and-responsibility-free analysis, shorn of everything except the preconceptions and assumptions of a particular discipline, that actively reduces the quality of the debate by giving one position the cover of a seemingly scholarly analysis. Is it likely that California, in the midst of a massively catastrophic fiscal situation, with a horrendously dysfunctional state government, will raise the amount of financial aid for state students? Or that the federal government, also facing serious fiscal issues and with a certain level of dysfunction of its own, will step into that absence?

Really?

So essentially, the argument is that the tuition raise might be a good thing if this almost certainly impossible thing happens along with it. That’s not reasoning, that’s “and a pony” logic.

That’s not even considering the myriad other problems with the argument. Is it possible that there could be other definitions of equity rather than economic that a university might be seeking with low up-front tuition? Is it possible that the lower-income students might be thrown off by the intimidation factor of high up-front price and simply not apply at all? Is it possible that having high tuitions at the state colleges in California will further erode the sense of ownership that Californians have in their state system and lead to a continuing spiral of budget cuts and tuition increases? I don’t know, but I rather suspect that all of those issues are worth considering.

Also worth considering is the idea that those who are public voices simply because of their reputation for acuity would do well to live up to that reputation.

I wish for that, and a pony.

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