Should You Pay More If You Are “Marginal?”

There was a recent article about a veterinary school in Canada that wanted to charge higher tuition to those prospective students who were initially rejected and then accepted. The “newly accepted” students would be charged five times (no typo) the standard tuition free. It was anticipated that there would be five such “accepted” rejects.

The idea was not met with favor (though not permanently abandoned) but let’s play with the idea a bit.

Imagine if prices for education (or anything else) depended on how “worthy” we are of whatever is being sold. Differential pricing with new meaning. Consider students who have perfect SATs paying less (well, in a sense we do this already with merit scholarships). What if students who barely meet the requirements (based on some sliding scale) don’t just pay list price (retail) for college, they pay a premium if they attend at varying levels? So, if the going rate of tuition, room and board is a round $50,000, “truly marginal” students pay $200,000. Or perhaps more. Then others would pay something resembling “price plus X.” Sliding tuition scale. Would it be published and transparent?

What if plane tickets were priced on need to get someplace quickly? We do this actually. If you have a business deal and need to get somewhere, you pay more. If you have a family emergency, you pay more. Absent special rules or good fortune, late travel bookers for flights do pay extra for their late planning. After all, increased pricing can be based, in a world of scarcity, of how much you want or need or are willing to pay for whatever the item is. Think auctions. Whatever the reason for overpaying, if you want the item, you pay.

That theory could be applied to education. If you want a particular institution enough, whether qualified or not (and I will return to who is qualified), buy a seat.

Here’s a problem with this idea in elite education: it hurts the people we want to help. There are students whose applications may look weak for any number of reasons but these individuals will be remarkable students. And, we do not have exactly precise predictors of who will actually succeed in higher education. Our sense of who should get admitted is filled with subjectivity, assumptions for explicit and implicit and lots of history of what works and doesn’t. And one needs to fill the boat of course. Having “less” qualified students pay more assumes that our admissions criteria are so excellent that we know who will be Phi Beta Kappa before the first class is taken and first grades given. Yeh, right.

Actually, it would be an interesting experiment for professors to judge which of their students they think will succeed in a semester, a year, five years out and ten years out. And, then look at reality. How accurate would professors be? How accurate would admissions personnel be? And who can account for the many variables that intersect in our lives — illness, heartbreak, fire in the belly, inspiration, quality connections and reciprocity, mentoring, love.

I think the idea of “rejects” paying more will be appealing — but not to the groups we want and need in our universities. It will appeal to weaker students with wealthy families who now have a new way to game the admissions system. With money comes the audacity of privilege as I said recently with respect to Jeffrey Epstein.

For me, having “lower” level students pay more just to get in and stay seems to reify privilege and the benefits of test prep and elite high schools or colleges. And the “rejects” will know they are paying more. If they start to do well or better than others, can they get a rebate? That only seems fair. And, if you are paying less and do badly, let’s jack up your bill. I hope the sarcasm is ringing through.

The fact that this idea is even considered and made public is enough to make one seriously worried — about our values, about education, about admissions, about equity, about how we judge and measure.

Here’s a hypothetical (?) as offensive as the one suggested. We have a pre-school with few spots, given small class sizes. Let’s auction off the seats. Highest bidders’ children get in. And then, just to add diversity, we allow several other youngsters in to fill in the mix. Or, how about we add in another few students whose parents are willing to pay ten times the going rate? Say add in one or two of those.

Yipes. Yeek.



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Karen Gross

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor