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Who Pays for Higher Education? The Politics of Legislating College Costs in the United States


State governments have moved away from support for postsecondary institutions and systems toward policies that relieve the burden of high tuition for individual educational consumers through financial aid and other tuition mitigation policies. What explains the policy choices state politicians make regarding financial aid and tuition setting? I focus on the enactment of three types of tuition policies: market-based tuition pricing, need-based financial aid, and tax-advantaged tuition investment programs, or “tuition trusts.” These policies mitigate college costs for different segments of the population. For each policy, I conducted comparative research in New York, Texas, and California to gain a process-focused perspective on how politicians approached the problem of college affordability. As analytically necessary, I also researched these policies in additional states, specifically Florida, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin. I supplement these case studies with quantitative analyses of the predictors of need-based aid spending and tuition trust program enactment for all fifty states between the years 1980 and 2012. I show that organizational features of the state, and conflicts over the distribution of resources between racial and ethnic groups, are the underlying factors that explain variation in the adoption of tuition mitigation policies. Specifically, state policymakers appear to be less willing to progressively redistribute the costs of higher education when state shares of the Black population are larger but more willing when state shares of the Hispanic population are larger. The nature of structural arrangements—which are rooted in longer histories of racial segregation and discrimination, as well as competition between higher education institutions—shape the ideological commitments and actions of legislators and other actors involved in the policymaking process. These commitments encourage different approaches to tuition pricing and mitigation across states. College costs limit who can attend higher education, who completes their degree, and the level of debt they incur. My research contributes to our understanding of how policymakers respond to the crisis of cost in higher education and provides insight into how higher education stakeholders might direct their efforts to broaden access by decreasing the burden of college tuition.

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