More students or fewer?

Recently, Bob Samuels wrote on Inside Higher Ed that one way for colleges to close their budget holes would be to open their doors wider:

If public universities are really committed to promoting access, affordability, and quality, they should consider increasing their funding by accepting more undergraduate students instead of raising tuition and restricting enrollments. While many would argue that higher education institutions are already unable to deal with the students they currently enroll, in reality, it costs most public research universities very little to educate each additional student, and the main reason why institutions claim that they do not get enough money from state funds and student dollars is that they make the students and the state pay for activities that are not directly related to instruction and research.

The basic idea is that universities aren’t maxing out their revenue because they don’t let everyone who is willing to pay the tuition attend. From an economist’s perspective, this is a fascinating suggestion, but also puzzling: why would schools fail to maximize their revenue? Afterall, if by letting in some extra students they could further support research activities and all the other fun stuff, why wouldn’t they do this? Why shouldn’t they do this?

Samuels suggests that the universities are not eager to do this since they would have to come clean about the true marginal costs of educating those students:

…I believe the main reason is that universities do not want to admit to the public that student dollars and state funds are spent on other things than instruction and related research.

William Patrick Leonard, Rio Grande Foundation’s Higher Education Advisor, responding to Samuels, suggests that letting more students might solve the budget problem, but it doesn’t necessarily help the students:

Bob Samuels’ argument is clearly aligned with the American ideal, that a college education should be available to all. His argument is flawed and serves only to benefit his constituency. I am not an elitist. Higher education should be available to all who can benefit. The question is determining these additional students’ ability, and I might add the disposition, to benefit. The problem is that our metrics for accurately identifying students with the minimal ability to benefit are grossly inaccurate. In our egalitarian society, many institutions have already pushed the limits of the left tail of the normal distribution in their pursuit additional tuition revenue. Ultimately, institutions have two choices when it comes to increasing revenue, increase tuition or admit more students.

The cynic in me suggests that Samuels is offering a self-serving rationale to ward off a potential reduction in force among his constituents. The more students enrolled the more revenue is earned under the guise of a core national value. On the surface, the institutions will do good, by doing good. These additional students, however, will likely be drawn from normally distributed populations. I suspect that more applicants from the left trail rather than the right will be enrolled. As more less capable and ill disposed students are enrolled, our already dismal retention and completion rates will sink even lower. Tuition revenue may increase and delay staff cuts but at the expense of ill prepared or disposed students.

I don’t think it is simply a matter of more or fewer students. I think that Samuels is wrong that state universities could simply admit more people because of the non-uniformity of students ability levels, as Pat Leonard suggests. The value of the education, in so far as a degree is a signal to employers, varies depending on how many people possess it as a credential and what kind of students are holding it.

In New Mexico, we need more clarity about what the inputs and outputs of higher education are, and what strategy is likely to increase the total welfare of the state’s population and its economy. As Pat Leonard says, increasing the universities total funds is not in and of itself a proper goal of state policy. It is only a means to an end.