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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Tuition Reduction and Access to Higher Education

Here's a paper I came across today:

Building the Stock of College-Educated Labor, by Susan M. Dynarski, Harvard University, NBER WP W11604: Abstract Half of college students drop out before completing a degree. ... This paper establishes a causal link between college costs and the share of workers with a college education. I exploit the introduction of two large tuition subsidy programs, finding that they increase the share of the population that completes a college degree by three percentage points. The effects are strongest among women, with white women increasing degree receipt by 3.2 percentage points and the share of nonwhite women attempting or completing any years of college increasing by six and seven percentage points, respectively. A cost-benefit analysis indicates that tuition reduction can be a socially efficient method for increasing college completion. However, even with the offer of free tuition, a large share of students continue to drop out, suggesting that the direct costs of school are not the only impediment to college completion. [Free version of paper on author web site.]

I've been promoting education on this site, but I've never really explained my interest in this topic so, as the Oregon rain pours down this late afternoon, I thought I'd take a few moments to do so. This is a bit long, a bit personal, and I'm hesitant about posting it, so please feel free to scroll to the next post as I worry my story may not interest you.

So, here goes. I am from a small town in northern California, a town called Colusa on the Sacramento river seven miles east of I-5 between Sacramento and Chico. My mom was born in the same town, and her mom spent most of her life there as well. My dad was born in an even smaller town not too far away - it's essentially just a store in the countryside, so I truly have small town roots.

I'm not sure everyone fully understands what that means, in my case at least, with respect to higher education. My parents spent a little time at a junior college, but they did not go to college in any formal sense, and their parents certainly did not go. College was mysterious and unknown to them, but quite necessary and they were determined I would go. My mom talked about it often and it never crossed my mind for as long as I can remember that I wouldn't go. College was an idea, a means to success, but my parents did not know the difference between Stanford, Berkeley, and Cal State Chico. They knew they were different, of course, but not how, and simply going to college was the key. Where you went didn't matter all that much. I see a lot of snobbishness concerning where people get their degree. But where I grew up the line was between those who went to college and those who didn't. They weren't going to be much impressed if your degree was from some fancy school rather than Cal State Chico - they already knew who you were. My high school wasn't much help either. There were 350 students in all grades and the counselor had been my mom's high school classmate, and most of the teachers had local roots as well. They all knew my family; one of my teachers lived across the street and several more within a few blocks, the dad of a friend was my English teacher. Some had left town for a few years during college, but most were as naive as my parents about higher education. Asking about graduate school and how to get there would not have been very useful. We received little guidance.

We were lower middle class and because of that my college choices were limited. My parents helped some, but mostly I worked summers and also during school and college choice was fully dictated by these constraints. This was the mid 1970's and I was fortunate that tuition at Cal State schools was cheap, very cheap (I recall around $100 a semester, maybe a little more, but can't recall for sure), and I could actually make enough myself to get by. And did. The other route was through junior college but that would have been a dead end for me. If I couldn't pay for college as a freshman, I still wouldn't have been able to pay for it as a junior. Looking forward two years, I would not have bothered to go at all and could have simply joined my dad and brother at the tractor store in town (I worked there in summers and at another tractor store in Chico during college and really, really hated it - that was great motivation in undergraduate and graduate school - I did not want to spend my life trapped there). I had friends who went the junior college route and some managed to go on, but most did not.

During my undergraduate days at Chico, I believe towards the end of my sophomore year after intermediate macro, the professor took me aside after class one day and said I should think about going to graduate school, but, he said, you need to transfer to a UC school. Staying here will not get you where you need to go. He said he could help. It made some impression on me, but because of my background, not enough. I didn't really understand you couldn't get some places from Chico. Nevertheless, the next time I was home I talked to my parents about it and told them what I had been told. They simply said, I still remember the words, "We can't afford that" and that was the end of it. I didn't press, didn't follow up, I simply accepted it. Maybe they could have pushed the financial edge some, I don't know, but they didn't understand the difference in schools - a degree was a degree - so I doubt they saw much benefit from doing so and the whole graduate school part was lost on them. Why didn't I go anyway and support myself, take out loans, etc.? I had no clue about how to get a loan. I don't think I was eligible for student loans until graduate school and there was no aid money available or anything like that. I didn't know how to find the money I would need. Now I could, and would have simply transferred and found a way, but it didn't seem possible then.

So I stayed at Chico. And though I should have done everything possible to go somewhere else, I am grateful for it. I was a bit wild when I was younger (those who know me can quit laughing at the word bit). Had I not gone to Chico, had I stayed in Colusa or gone to Yuba College, the local junior college 24 miles away, I shudder to think how I would have ended up. Idle minds and all that. I doubt society would be better off had it not provided me a heavily subsidized education. I wish there had been even more access to higher education, I would have taken advantage of it, and it did turn out there were places I couldn't go from Chico. But I went somewhere, and somewhere else from there, and here I am, hopefully paying society back in some small way for the investment it made in me by helping me through school. I have no complaints at all.

Given how tuition costs have risen since then, I often wonder how many people like me are now in dead end jobs at their tractor store, in jail, who knows where, all because they don't have the opportunity I had. I sometimes resent in fleeting moments that I didn't have the same opportunities others had, but at other times, most times, I laugh to myself that I made it this far given where I started. I'm not quite sure how it happened, and I am very indebted to California for making it possible by putting an easy road in front of a typical teenager coming out of high school. I needed an easy road to follow. So I feel compelled to keep the education access issue alive, to keep pushing it where I can, and to do what I can internally here to help those like me or those who face even larger hurdles. I know how hard it was for people in my town to get out of there and go to college anywhere, and I know how easy it would have been to slip through the cracks, how close I came to doing just that, so I hope you will bear with me when I push on educational issues. It made a huge difference in my life and I'd hate to see others miss out on their window of opportunity.

    Posted by on Wednesday, November 2, 2005 at 12:34 AM in Economics, Universities | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (20)

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