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Article misleads on tuition/fees, enrollment changes

As the law of the instrument goes, give a small boy a hammer and he will find everything he encounters needs pounding. That vibe emanates from a recent article from the Lafayette Advertiser concerning Louisiana’s college enrollments, where the author fixates on one factor explaining variation in that level when in fact this one thing, tuition and fee levels, has less to do with enrollment variance than many others.

The piece begins by alleging “Eight years of state budget cuts have led to some student turn-offs to public higher education in Louisiana, and it's showing,” then further postulates cuts translated into higher tuition and fees, which then discouraged some students from attending. As evidence, it points to the number of attending students in academic year 2010 – a figure derived from what is called the “14th day registration,” or the number enrolled at an institution on the 14th day of the fall term – compared to 2015, a drop of around 10,000.

The obvious question appears immediately – if “eight years of state budget cuts” caused this, why do we view only five years of data; why not view AY 2008 to AY 2016 data? Not including the latter endpoint makes sense at this time because it’s impossible: the 14th day number for all institutions won’t come through for another month. Which then begs another question: why did this piece get written now, using nearly year-old data when waiting a month would have produced fresh data?

But there’s no excuse for using AY 2010 data at the other endpoint rather than AY 2008 numbers – except maybe that the reporter was lazy and/or it destroys the thesis of the article. The source used for the piece’s assertions on its web site lists AY 2010 and AY 2015 data and perhaps she just stopped at that, thinking that the only data available and therefore fitting everything to that despite these not accurately measuring the entire period of increases.

However, it also allows download of a file with data from every academic year from 2004. The article reports a 66 percent increase in tuition and fees from AY 2010-2015 (although not reporting that this was for senior institutions only and in current dollars). The tabular data allows for a comparison between AY 2008-15, which shows in current dollars increases of 104 percent for community colleges and 93 percent for universities.

So over the period cited of increases, it actually was much more dramatic than the article led one to believe and might have supported the thesis – except that in AY 2008, enrollment actually was 8,000 lower than in AY 2015. This demonstrates that variance in attendance relies much more heavily on other things, which makes sense given that tuition and fees, particularly in Louisiana with the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students paying full freight until this year for about a fifth of attending students, with generous federal government lending and grant programs are fairly inelastic in relation to enrollment.

The article does mention some of these competing factors, such as that the Louisiana Community and Technical Colleges System merged some campuses throughout the period, in the middle of the 2010-15 period admissions standards rose at most of the baccalaureate-and-above institutions, and graduate enrollment dropped at a higher rate, which has different tuition rates and changes. It also notes some technicalities in reporting numbers that might alter conclusions.

Yet the most important cause the piece only hints at – the larger economy. Enrollment acts countercyclically from economic performance: when the economy goes well, enrollment slumps because of the high demand for labor and higher wages that result, but heading into and through recession enrollment perks up as people out of work or unenthused at current work prospects take advantage of the lull to boost their future employability through attaining education.

Inflated by the bonus from recovery spending from the 2005 hurricane disasters, Louisiana resisted the recession just prior to the presidency of Barack Obama, who upon inauguration then embarked upon policies that blunted recovery prospects that still leaves national median family income below when he took office and the lowest workforce participation rate since 1978, among many other negative indicators. Louisiana subsequently succumbed to Obama’s policies after the recovery bonus wore out. The relatively good state of Louisiana’s economy in AY 2008 partly explains the lower enrollment levels, while prospects had deteriorated considerably by AY 2010 and only tepidly improved since.

But that was not the hammer the reporter had in mind. To her, tuition and fee increases had to be the cause (as the lead indicates), because these had gone up so much! Because now, in terms of ability to pay, Louisiana students have gone from nearly the cheapest costs to below average among the states, but it was so much it had to be really bad!

Those of us who teach research methods warn (among the many other threats to validity and reliability in conducting research) our students to avoid “monism,” or becoming fixated on one causal element and/or research design appropriate to its analysis that can ignore other significant causes. No doubt these tuition and fee increases have dampened attendance at Louisiana institutions of higher learning – to a small degree, while other policy changes have had much greater impacts on enrollment. This article illustrates the problem of monism.

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