It’s 1984 Again

I can’t even.

On Twitter this morning, I saw this article in the Washington Post.  You should read the article to see how many things you think are wrong, but I’ll give you the one I love.

ScreenHunter 542 Aug. 01 08.30

If you took logic in college, and if you know anything about how college pricing works, you’ll see right away the Fallacy of Equivocation: Making two things that are not equal equal for the sake of an argument.  In this instance, colleges talk about price as both tuition, or what the sticker price is, which everyone thinks has gone up beyond reality, and net cost to the student.  They say they can lower price to the student, which in this case means the sticker price, not the net cost.  Because, you see, in the same paragraph, they admit that average costs to students are going down, due to competition. They don’t like competition.  It’s bad for them.

The competition they don’t like is a self-inflicted wound, of course, and one they could stop at any time if they wanted to.

Why? Because colleges are chasing prestige, via the enrollment of “high ability” students, which doesn’t mean high ability in the way you think.  It means “high ability” in terms of test scores, which are really, really convenient because they’re represented as a number, which of course is precise and clearly indicates better.  These “high ability” students are in demand, which means colleges–who want to display high median scores–compete for them on price. (If you don’t believe me, go ahead and Google University Strategic Plans and see how many don’t talk about raising academic quality as reflected by test scores, or something similar.)

Except, of course, that the tests really don’t tell us who the “high ability” students are (other than they correlate with GPA); they tell us who the wealthy, mostly White students are.  And the wealthy, mostly White students go to the best high schools, as determined by wealthy White people. They get money they don’t “need” (a ridiculous concept if you know anything about EFC calculation) because college costs have risen so dramatically because they want to fund the discounts for the wealthy.

If you think this sounds like an old Abbott and Costello routine, you’re right.

So it’s 1984 again.  In 1984, there existed “The Overlap Group” now replaced by the 568 Group.  The Overlap Group was a consortium of the nation’s highest profile colleges, who have the loftiest market positions, and could effectively set tuition at even unreasonable levels given the demand for their offerings.  These institutions would share admit and financial aid data to arrive at a common EFC for all applicants at those institutions, meaning, in counselor-speak, that students would have effectively the same net price at all the Overlap universities, thus allowing them to choose more on “fit” and less on the nasty, real world concepts of price or value.  How quaint.

Except, of course, when the only ones setting the net price stand to benefit from setting the net price, the ones setting the net price tend to act exactly as you would expect them to.  Duh.  That may mean, of course, students occasionally get a better price at their number one choice; it more likely means that–on average–students pay more, and they don’t get an early lesson in the thing I told my kids since they were old enough to understand: “What does Mick Jagger say?” I’d ask them.  They’d always respond appropriately.

It’s also 1984 in another way.  Everywhere you look these days, absurdity abounds.  I went to look up a specific quote from 1984, just to make sure I got it right.  I went so deep into the quotes I realized you could pick well over half of them to use in this post.  So choose your favorite, and post it in the comments.

And remember: We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.




3 thoughts on “It’s 1984 Again

  1. “The best books… are those that tell you what you know already.” – 1984, Orwell, it extends to just like the best education is one that tells you what you know already…

    Great post, as always!


  2. I’m pretty smart and I work in higher ed, but I have to admit, I’m having time really understanding what you are saying here.


    1. Basically, when colleges can get together to determine a common price, they are price fixing.

      You’re not the first one to suggest my writing is confusing!


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