why don’t colleges allocate more resources to access?

You would think that when a college or university gets a financial windfall, it would spend as much of its new funds as possible to make itself more accessible. It could cut tuition prices, increase financial aid, and/or expand the number of students. But George Bulman finds that none of these things happen.*

Bulman investigates the results when institutions see highly varied returns on their investments, from a 19% increase in an endowment in a single year to a 19% loss. Even in a given year, different comparable institutions can see disparate returns. Bulman finds that when their investments do well, colleges and universities spend more money on their programs, become more selective, allow their tuitions to rise, but allocate no additional money to financial aid, and actually admit and fund fewer students of color. The overall decrease in racial diversity is statistically significant.

Bulman doesn’t really speculate about the reasons. One could model institutions as decision-makers that are trying to maximize their own selectivity and rankings and use windfall money for that purpose. That model fits the data, but I would offer a different explanation that reflects my informal observations better.

I think that a host of groups within any given institution have needs. They make arguments for spending money on everything from student housing to research administration. Often these arguments have merit and an idealistic ring. For instance, students at several universities that I know are advocating more campus housing to relieve rent pressure on nearby neighborhoods that are subject to gentrification. They get this idea from their genuine engagement with those neighborhoods. They don’t want housing for themselves in a narrow way.

However, as a result of many such claims, all available revenues are quickly used up. The new expenditures tend to make the institution look more impressive, increasing applications and allowing the admissions office to become more selective. In essence, it’s a problem of actual internal constituencies trumping the interests of an abstract constituency: potential students.

What should we think when we read this kind of announcement?

Princeton University will enhance its groundbreaking financial aid program, providing even more generous support to undergraduates and their families as it works to attract talented students from all backgrounds.Most families earning up to $100,000 a year will pay nothing, and many families with income above $100,000 will receive additional aid, including those at higher income levels with multiple children in college.

To put this in context, I would note that Princeton’s endowment of $4.5 million per student should generate an average payout of about $225,000 per student per year. Princeton could double or triple its student body and offer full scholarships to all the additional students. Instead, it spends its funds on a range of activities, many of them meritorious, and many of which increase its luster, thereby allowing it to reject 94.4% of its applicants—all the while soliciting its alumni to support financial aid. Again, I would interpret Princeton’s priorities not as an intentional choice to buy selectivity, but as a result of many internal constituencies making valid claims on resources.

(Tufts’ endowment is about $200k per student, which should generate about $10k per student in an average year: a different story.)

See G. Bulman, “The Effect of College and University Endowments on Financial Aid, Admissions, and Student Composition,” NBER Working Paper 30404 http://www.nber.org/papers/w30404. See also Four perspectives on student debt forgiveness;  the weirdness of the higher ed marketplace; etc.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.