College Subsidies Fuel Salaries

“Who pays a tax is determined not by the laws of Congress but by the law of supply and demand,” as Tyler and I say in Modern Principles. In particular, whether demanders or suppliers pay a tax is determined by the elasticities of demand and supply. The more elastic side of the market can better escape a tax, leaving more of it to be paid by the inelastic side. The same thing is true for a subsidy but in reverse, the inelastic side of the market gets the benefit of the subsidy. Virginia Postrel applies the idea to education and education subsidies.

If you offer people a subsidy to pursue some activity requiring an input that’s in more-or-less fixed supply, the price of that input goes up. Much of the value of the subsidy will go not to the intended recipients but to whoever owns the input. The classic example is farm subsidies, which increase the price of farmland.

A 1998 article in the American Economic Review explored another example: federal research and development subsidies. Like farmland, the supply of scientists and engineers is fairly fixed, at least in the short run. Unemployed journalists and mortgage brokers can’t suddenly turn into electrical engineers just because there’s money available, and even engineers and scientists are unlikely to switch specialties. So instead of spurring new activity, much of the money tends to go to increase the salaries of people already doing such work. From 1968 to 1994, a 10 percent increase in R&D spending led to about a 3 percent increase in incomes in the subsidized fields.

“A major component of government R&D spending is windfall gains to R&D workers,” the paper concluded. “Incomes rise significantly while hours rise little, and the increases are concentrated within the engineering and science professions in exactly the specialties heavily involved in federal research.”

The study’s author was Austan Goolsbee, then and now a professor at the University of Chicago but until recently the chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers.

….Goolsbee declined a recent request to comment on the subject, but the parallels to higher education are hard to miss.

In the short-term, the number of slots at traditional colleges and universities is relatively fixed. A boost in student aid that increases demand is therefore likely to be reflected in prices rather than expanded enrollments. Over time, enrollments should rise, as they have in fact done. But many private schools in particular keep the size of their student bodies fairly stable to maintain their prestige or institutional character.

…On the whole, it seems that universities are like the companies making capital equipment. If the government hands their customers the equivalent of a discount coupon, the institutions can capture at least some of that amount by raising their prices

…This doesn’t mean that colleges capture all the aid in higher tuition charges, any more than capital-equipment companies get all the benefit of investment tax credits. But it does set up problems for two groups of students in particular. The first includes those who don’t qualify for aid and who therefore have to pay the full, aid-inflated list price. The second encompasses those who load up on loans to fill the gaps not covered by grants or tax credits only to discover that the financial value they expected from their education doesn’t materialize upon graduation.

Addendum: Long time readers may remember my rebuttal to Krugman on a similar point. Liberal Order has graphs and further discussion.


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