Increases in public college tuition are often linked with, and justified by, corresponding increases in financial aid. In this setup, raising tuition is portrayed as a cost-shifting measure — charging more for those who can afford it to keep costs down for those who can’t. But that’s not how it works out in practice, for several reasons.
First, financial aid increases rarely match tuition hikes, and if you think about it for even a moment, it’s easy to see why. Tuition hikes carry high political costs, and financial aid increases bring less political benefits. If the only reason to raise tuition was to improve financial aid, most politicians wouldn’t bother. You raise tuition to raise revenue, and a revenue-neutral tuition increase isn’t likely to be a political winner.
Second, it’s a lot easier to cut financial aid than to raise tuition, which means that a tuition-for-financial-aid deal often exchanges a short-term benefit for a long-term burden.
And finally, as the Chronicle noted a few weeks back, many prospective students are far more aware of tuition prices than the often complex financial aid options available to them. The higher your tuition, the fewer applicants you’ll get, particularly among the most in-need and at-risk student communities.