Campus & Community

‘Who goes to college?’:

7 min read

Economist Bridget Terry Long examines access to higher education

Bridget Terry
Bridget Terry Long: 'I would rather spend money in a way that is going to introduce new people into the system and change their minds about their human capital investments, rather than … make people more comfortable with something they were going to do anyway.' (Staff photos Rose Lincoln/Harvard News Office)

Without a glint of self-aggrandizement, Bridget Terry Long describes her work as grappling with the “million-dollar question.”

Long, assistant professor of education at the Graduate School of Education (GSE), trains her economist’s eye on higher education: What economic factors influence students’ decisions to attend college?

In our nation’s information-driven economy, the answers are indeed worth a million bucks. According to the College Board, people with a bachelor’s degree will earn, on average, $1 million more throughout their lifetimes than those with only a high school diploma.

Yet with the average tuition price of private four-year colleges nudging $20,000 per year and their public counterparts charging, on average, more than $4,000, access to that million-dollar advantage challenges lower-income students and their families. If, that is, those low-income students have received the education and counseling that’s made a college degree worth considering at all.

“Given the fact that education is so vitally important and, unfortunately, … in trouble in so many ways, it’s important to have people taking a critical eye to what are we doing, what’s worked, what hasn’t, what do we need, what policies might help improve things in the future,” says Long. Economics, with its rigorous, statistical analysis of decisions and resources, provides that critical look.

What’s not working

Long has completed several studies recently that look at government programs intended to help students attend college, including the Georgia HOPE Scholarship, a merit-based program that’s been replicated in other states, and the federal government’s 1997 tax credits for higher education expenses.

She found that, unlike earlier federal initiatives such as the need-based Pell Grant, these newer programs, initiated in the 1990s, are affecting affordability far more than access. In other words, they’re benefiting students who are already college-bound.

“They’re really representing a shift in financial aid,” she says of the programs. “They’re not trying to introduce new people into the system, they’re trying to make people who are already going to attend more comfortable with the expense.”

The merit-based Georgia HOPE scholarship, for instance, grants free tuition at an in-state public college to any Georgia student with a B average or higher; it’s a program popular with voters and, thus, with policy-makers. But most of those students – 80 percent, according to several researchers – would have attended college anyway.

In another study, forthcoming as a chapter in a book edited by Professor of Economics Caroline Hoxby (Long’s adviser for her Ph.D. from Harvard), Long found that the 1997 federal tax credits for higher education – the largest public financial package in 40 years – were uniquely unsuited to benefit families with low incomes and, thus, low tax liability. Almost no one with an income below $30,000 qualifies for the nonrefundable credits, she says. Rather, most of the credits in the past several years have gone to families with incomes of over $50,000.

“I find no evidence of an enrollment effect” from the tax credits, she says, a further indication that they’re going to students who would have gone to college anyway rather than making college possible for a student who wouldn’t otherwise consider it.

Long concedes that, as tuition even at public colleges and universities far outpaces families’ incomes, easing the burden of college costs for middle-income students is a worthy pursuit. Ever the economist, however, she believes it’s not the best use of limited dollars. Access to college for those who might not otherwise attend gives, she says, a bigger bang for the buck than making college more affordable.

“I would love to do everything, but I would rather spend money in a way that is going to introduce new people into the system and change their minds about their human capital investments, rather than … make people more comfortable with something they were going to do anyway,” she explains. To a low-income family, a $1,000 tax credit can represent the difference between attending college or not, between working in a competitive job or being on welfare. To the middle-income family, she says, $1,000 might mean bills paid sooner or a few more pizzas.

Bridget Terry Long: 'What economic factors influence students' decisions to attend college?'

It’s not just the economy, stupid

While money acts as an enormous decisionmaker in college access, it’s not the only factor, says Long, particularly for low-income students and their families. Information about these and other financial aid programs is not always easy to find, she says, particularly for lower-income families who may not have computer access and whose high school counseling may lag in quality behind that at private and wealthy suburban schools.

Long has also examined how government financial aid is acquired and disbursed; on both counts, she’s found, low-income families come up short. The complexity of government financial aid forms is daunting to the savviest parent; to one who’s never been to college or may not speak English well, it can be an outright deterrent. Why not, she suggests, streamline the process, using information these families may already have provided on forms that grant free lunches, food stamps, or welfare?

“We have already proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, that they’re poor,” she says. “Why is it necessary for them to fill out additional forms?”

Compounding the problem, she adds, is the fact that families do not know the amount of government aid they’ll receive until March of a student’s senior year, by which point the student would have already applied to colleges without knowing if he or she can pay for them. Long suggests backing the acknowledgement process up by years, not months.

“If you knew in sixth grade, given your family income, this is how much money the government is willing to help you to go to college, that’s certainly going to affect your outlook on how hard you’re going to work and whether or not you think you’re going to go to college,” she says.

Finally, college tuition has an image problem, and Long notes that it’s not just low-income families who vastly overestimate the cost of college. When she asks her master’s level students at the GSE the average costs for public and private four-year colleges, they overshoot by a multiple of four.

“And these are people who’ve been to college, have college degrees, and work at colleges,” she says. Lower-income families may be stunned to inaction by a reported $30,000 price tag, yet they’re not getting the message that community or state colleges cost far, far less and that almost no one – less than 15 percent – pays full freight even at costly private colleges.

More than the million-dollar question

Broadening access to a college education does more than line graduates’ pockets with an extra million bucks, Long argues; more productive, educated earners benefit everyone. Several alternatives to a well-educated workforce – public assistance or jail – actually cost society dearly.

Long, honored by the GSE with its 2003 Morningstar Teaching Award, draws inspiration from her own family. While both her parents graduated from college, several aunts and uncles did not. Long calls the lifestyle differences between her family and that of some aunts, uncles, and cousins “staggering.”

On the GSE faculty since completing her Ph.D. in 2000, Long lauds the school for its grounding in the real world. “I did not go into this to stay in the ivory tower,” she says. “I studied economics because I was interested in social policy.”

While she acknowledges that the discipline of economics may not have all the solutions, she is passionate that education is worthy of economists’ rigor.

“I have an agenda of questions and hopefully at the end of a long career, I will have some answers,” she says. “They are certainly the most important questions I can think of.”