Sunday, September 26, 2010

S.C.'s higher ed kerfuffle: Questioning the numbers

South Carolina's governor and its colleges and universities are jousting about rising tuition, building projects, etc.

(Disclosure, if you hadn't  noticed, I am employed by the University of South Carolina, but nothing here should be construed as having anything to do with its views, policies, etc. If it did, I would be very suspect of my sanity as a journalist and journalism professor. This is written as a teaching lesson for young journalists, nothing more.)

Some state legislators and Gov. Mark Sanford have defined the issue as one linking tuition increases to new buildings. It's a perfect political straw man because a) parents and students are rightly annoyed, angry even, about rising tuition (I know, I just finished putting two through college) and b) the state's colleges always are in various stages of construction and repair, so it's easy to point to things like a $14,000 fountain repair and go "Ah ha! Told you so."

Futher, it allows the pols to argue for a largely symbolic victory (even if the schools agree to limit tuition, it is not directly linked to construction), and it paints the schools into a corner because now they are forced to argue a negative - that construction and tuition are not linked and that the reality is that large cuts in state support are responsible for tuition increases. As anyone in PR will tell you, having to argue a negative is not generally a winning hand.

(Again, a note - I am not endorsing USC's argument. Take it with a grain of salt as you would Sanford et al.'s, evaluate and come to your own conclusions.)

Sanford has now maneuvered school officials into having to appear at a statewide "higher education summit" this coming week. It should be interesting theater all around.

Lies, damned lies and ...
In advance of that, Sanford has turned "mythbuster," and in his latest release there is a lesson for journalists to not only do the math themselves but consider on their own what story the numbers tell.

Sanford's position, roughly summarized (and for expediency let's just take the numbers he presents at face value with no research, though as a journalist I would be trying to check them were I covering this) is that each out-of-state student costs the university $9,000 in subsidy to educate ($31,000 cost less $22,000 tuition) while, somehow, the state-funded subsidy for in-state students is only $10,000. Let me let his press office lay it out for you:

Out-of-state enrollment at USC between 1999 and 2008 increased 105 percent while in-state enrollment grew less than nine percent. Looking statewide, the out-of-state student population grew from 24.6 percent in 1999 to 28.2 percent in 2008, while states like Florida have cut their out-of-state populations almost in half over that same time frame.
  • In 2008, Clemson and USC spent on average $31,000 on out-of-state student’s [should be students' or each .... student's, but who's copy editing, right?] education annually, but out-of-state tuition as these two schools only averaged close to $22,000. South Carolina taxpayers were forced to make up the difference.
  • At USC and Clemson in 2008, South Carolina taxpayers subsidized out-of-state students to the tune of around $9,000 per year, per student - meaning that South Carolina taxpayers are effectively handing out-of-state students a $40,000 check for their South Carolina education. 
  • In 2008, USC and Clemson had a combined out-of-state enrollment of 10,778 students. Given the $9,000 annual subsidy for out-of-state students, that means South Carolina taxpayers shell out $97 million every year to help non-South Carolinians attend South Carolina schools.
  • South Carolina’s in-state tuition at its largest public universities remains 145 percent higher than Florida, 80 percent higher than North Carolina and 60 percent higher than Georgia.
“This massive influx of out-of-state students does not, as some would argue, lower costs for South Carolina students to attend South Carolina colleges,” Gov. Mark Sanford. “Instead, it forces South Carolina taxpayers to actually subsidize out-of-state students’ education, while in many cases making it that much harder for South Carolina families to send their children to South Carolina schools, even if their parents and grandparents are alumni. This is simply unfair, unfortunate and frankly unknown by many taxpayers across South Carolina.”

“Compare this roughly $40,000 subsidy South Carolina taxpayers give to out-of-state students to the much-heralded HOPE scholarships - roughly $2,500 annually - meant to help South Carolina students get a college education in-state. HOPE scholarships provide around $10,000 in aid to in-state students over the average collegiate career - only one-fourth of the taxpayer subsidy lavished on out-of-state students.

“This raises the question: why would South Carolina taxpayers be subsidizing out-of-state students’ education to a greater degree than South Carolina’s own students?
Every numerical argument relies on an assumption. That's a key point that journalists too often miss. What is the assumption here? It's that it costs $31,000 to educate an out-of-state student but, apparently, something less to educate an in-state student. Now stop and ask yourself - does that make sense?

I'd contend it does not. So, if an out-of-state student is paying about $25,000 a year in tuition (that's the actual USC figure - making the subsidy using Sanford's cost figures about $6,000 not $9,000 at that school), and an in-state student pays about $9,400, isn't the effective "subsidy" for the in-state student $31,000-$9,400, or $21,600? Add to that the $2,500 Hope scholarship the governor touts, and wouldn't the effective state subsidy for an in-state student be more than $24,000 for the first year, versus $6,000 for the out-of-state student, and $21,600 after that? (The Hope is available only to first-year students (PDF), so, presumably unless the student got some other kind of state-funded aid after that, he or she would pay the $2,500 additional in the sophomore through senior years).

Now, there are some assumptions of my own here, of course. Most notable is that state support makes up the full deficit for each student. Look at the state subsidy for higher ed, however, and it would seem that other sources are needed. And clearly many students get financial aid that does not come from the state. But I see nothing to indicate those other sources are skewed more toward either classification of student.

So, if the reality is that both are loss leaders, but out-of-state students are actually less so, doesn't enrolling more out-of-state students actually help keep the subsidies down?

At that point, this doesn't turn into a numbers argument, but a political and philosophical one, and journalists should see it for what it is because it raises questions different from whose numbers are right:
  • If in-state and out-of-state students both incur "losses" for the institution, what is the right balance of in-state and out-of-state students?
  • Is there some kind of underlying philosophical assumption that out-of-state students should cover all their costs? Is that realistic when compared with other states? When compared with higher ed as we generally have practiced it in this country? And if not, is it time for that  change? (Never rule out the benefits and pitfalls of such change - just recognize, as journalists, what they are and explain them to readers.)
  • Are some of the politicians angry because parents have complained that Bubba and Bubbette couldn't get into USC or Clemson (what I have heard some students actually declare were their "safe" schools)?
  • What should be the true relationship between state support, tuition and enrollment?
  • And if out-of-state students coming to South Carolina are a problem, shouldn't we then be honest and declare all S.C. students going out of state to be leeches, too? In fact, if you want to put it in stark economic terms, as Sanford does, and having reworked those numbers, would it not actually benefit the state to get as many students going to other states' schools as possible and get as many in-state students here? 
But those are tough questions - much tougher than throwing around some suspect numbers. They require everyone - politicians, education leaders, students, parents, journalists and the rest of  us - to actually sit down and have some hard, deep thought.

When I started writing this, USC did not have a point-by-point response. It now does. Unfortunately, it does not address the true cost of education per student and whether there is a significant difference between in-state and out-of-state students. And if there isn't, it really doesn't matter much what the figure is (unless out-of-state students actually make the U money) because we are talking orders of magnitude here.

(Having looked at USC's site, I'm not sure it does itself any favors with how things are presented. For instance, there is this:
USC Columbia's total state appropriations were $188,308,819 in 2008.  Total fall 2007 headcount enrollment, was 27,272. Of that enrollment 19,288 were resident South Carolinians. This would indicate that for each resident student, USC received $9,763 in state funding.  If the state were in fact writing a check to USC for the non-resident enrollments, the appropriation would be an additional $71,856,000.
 That, of course, requires one to assume state money goes only to subsidize state students. Now, one might fairly conclude that is Sanford's argument, but I'm not sure it totally is. And even if it were, the university should clearly state that is the assumption on which it is operating. It also assumes that the higher figure, when the math is done only on in-state residents, would remain the effective state subsidy. But the actual state subsidy, taking all students into account, is about $6,905, and nothing says that wouldn't be the figure the university would end up with, even if it enrolled nothing but in-state students. By the way, I get $77.9 million, not $71.9 million, when I do the math [27272-19288]*9763, or 7894*9763. There's also that 2007 vs. 2008 anomaly, which the school could make clearer by explaining that "2008" apparently refers to fiscal 2008, which ran from July 1 2007, to June 30, 2008. But, of course, if you read it closely, there are lots of code and assumptions here, leading one to believe this site really isn't for "the public." It's for policy makers who already know this stuff.)

The danger for journalists is that they get caught up in the fog of numbers and fail to cut through that fog and recognize the issues for what they are.

Numbers rarely actually lie unless we let them. Instead, they tell a story about who is issuing them, and the journalist's true job is to figure out those stories and tell them for what they are.

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