Is High College Tuition Defensible?

Political Scientist

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Silver Professor of Politics at New York University. He is an expert on international conflict, foreign policy formation, and nation building. His current research focuses on the links between political institutions, economic growth, and political change. He is also investigating the causes and consequences of international conflict as well as national security policy forecasting and analysis.

Using a proprietary mathematical formula that takes into account the self-interests of and alliances among actors in key business and political questions (i.e. whether Iran will build nuclear weapons), de Mesquita predicts the future for businesses and organizations such as the CIA.

His most recent books include The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics (PublicAffairs, 2011) and The Predictioneer's Game: Using the Logic of Brazen Self-Interest to See and Shape the Future (Random House, Inc., 2009)Additionally, he has authored more than one hundred articles and fourteen books on politics, as well as one published novel, The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge (Ohio State University Press, 2001).

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Why did tuition rates get so high in the United States?  Let’s preface this with I, too, am self-interested and I am a professor . . . so high tuition, is that a bad thing? Not for me.

Okay, so what we want to understand is that the United States higher education system is not unique but it’s unusual in that public institutions of higher education have to compete with private institutions of higher education, and what they compete on is the quality of the education and the quality of the student body.  Now the quality of the student body turns out to be an important element for students because who they get to be friends with, who they network with at the college and university level, has important bearing on their opportunities in the rest of their lives.  So tuition is a mechanism for sorting out how strongly people demand a particular level of education.  

It’s also quite misleading.  Universities price discriminate, that is, they state a very high tuition level, which almost nobody pays.  So when people debate tuition they need to look at the actual tuition paid and not the rate stated.  The actual tuition paid for something like 70 or 75% of undergraduate students is much lower because they are given low-interest loans or they are given scholarships or other mechanisms that greatly reduce the true tuition. and that’s the level of tuition that public institutions compete with.


I went to public institutions for my entire education.  I went to Queens College of the City University of New York back in the 1960s when it was free.  I came from an upper middle-class family that could have afforded to pay some tuition, so the actual consequence of my free tuition - or today the relatively low tuition - is that poor people in New York City whose children were not going to University but who were paying taxes to the City of New York were subsidizing my education.  Probably a higher tuition rate and then price discrimination such as we see commonly in private universities is a better system.  Then I would not have been subsidized by poorer people.  ‘

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd


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