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The higher ed bubble (or perhaps “bubble”) is back with a vengeance.  Mike Caulfield critiqued the notion of a bubble last week.   CNN sounded the alarm  on Monday (I guess they don’t read Caulfield) . Stephen Downes responded to the CNN story, as did Steven Krause and Caulfield. Downes responded to Caulfield, and Caulfied replied.

Caulfield makes some interesting points about the effect on co-curricular emphasis, but there’s an effect that I think all the posters have missed.  The difference between the “sticker price” and the real price affects who goes to college, not just how much they pay.   The elegant term for this gap is “tuition discounting”.  The Lumina foundation examined the practice in detail .  They noted that discounting caused the amount of grant aid given to students from the wealthiest families to grow six times faster than the amount of aid given to students from the lowest income group.  Matthew Quirk wrote in “The Best Class Money Can Buy”  of how tuition discounting  and enrollment management “…changed financial aid—from a tool to help low-income students into a strategic weapon to entice wealthy and high-scoring students.”

If Quirk is right, are we seeing a shift in our collective understanding of what college is for?  Louis Menand recently considered this question in the New Yorker. (Go read Menand’s piece now. My post can wait).  Particularly, is enrollment management a shift back towards what Menand called Theory One (college as intellectual sorting mechanism) and Theory Three (college as vocational training) and away from what he termed Theory Two? (college as preparation mechanism of an informed and thoughtful citizenry)

Given the scale and emphasis of tuition discounting, what bubble there is isn’t round.  The tuition coat gap is growing fastest for those least able to pay.  How we as a nation intend to greatly increase the number of college graduates while making our investments in higher education in such a way that they benefit most those already at the top of the socioeconomic ladder is a question I haven’t been able to figure out the answer to.  I’m concerned that if I figure the answer out, I won’t like it.

Header image credit: Flickr user BotheredByBees CC-BY
June 2011
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