Is higher education a luxury good?

luxury goods

Mmmmmm... luxury...

My post about merit scholarships and how they reflect on our notion of higher education got me thinking: do we in fact treat higher education like a luxury?  In economics, a “luxury” good is defined as a good for which demand rises disproportionately when income rises, and decreases disproportionately as income decreases.  In economic lingo, a luxury good exhibits high elasticity of demand.

The concept is in contrast to “necessity” goods, for which demand is not related to income and there is low elasticity of demand.  There are also “normal” goods, where demand rises proportionately as income increases, and “inferior” goods, where demand decreases as income increases.

Looking at education as any other types of goods or services that people can purchase, we might ask how its demand relate to income levels, and in turn, what type of good it is.  The question is hard to answer for primary and secondary education, because every state has some form of compulsory education laws, which usually require children to be educated up to the age of 17 or 18.  Because primary and secondary schools are free for children from low-income families, it is difficult to measure what the level of demand would have been at various levels of income.  (But private primary and secondary school education is probably a luxury good.)

Governmental subsidy for primary and secondary education suggests that at least conceptually, we treat those types of schools as necessity goods that should be guaranteed even for people who cannot afford to purchase them.  Other good examples of government subsidies include low-income housing, food stamps, and medicare/medicaid, which reflect our belief, as a society, that shelter, food, and medical care are necessity goods for our citizens.  This explains why, even in times of recessions, though states have had to cut the education budget, no one dreams of eliminating either the public school system entirely or the requirements for compulsory education.

But what about higher education?  There is no equivalent legislation to require or subsidize postsecondary education.  People are free to attend or forgo colleges and universities as they choose.  Demand (in the form of enrollment rates) is therefore easier to measure.

Conventional wisdom suggests that enrollment in colleges should increase during bad economic times, because the opportunity costs of colleges — in the form of lost income — decreases, and those who cannot find a job or are laid off would flock to the schools to improve their skills and “wait out” the recession.  As I have noted in a previous postenrollment at community colleges are indeed soaring in recent hard economic times.  Over 90% of community college presidents say that their enrollment has been more than the previous January.  Some have called the increases unprecedented.

But the same growth has not been experienced by the more expensive colleges and universities in the nation.  According to surveys conducted by several national education associations this past spring, More than 65% of high schools reported more students applying to public colleges rather than private colleges compared to previous years.  Nearly one-third of private colleges expect freshman enrollment to decline in the academic year of 2009-2010.

The data suggests that there are at least two types of education goods  There are the cheaper public 2-year colleges.  They can be deemed inferior goods because demand for them tends to rise as income drops and drop as income rises.  There are also private colleges and universities.  The more expensive public universities, especially for out-of-state students, can also be grouped in this category.  They are luxury goods because demand decreases sharply when income decreases, and climbs rapidly as income climbs.

The picture is complicated a bit by the generous financial aid that many private universities offer to its students.  At Harvard University, for example, parents in households that make less than $60,000 are not expected to contribute at all to college costs, and households that make less than $180,000 are expected to contribute about 10% of their income.  Need-based scholarships have also replaced student loans.   Other elite universities have followed suit and instituted similar financial aid programs.  An education at those universities, at least for those in the lower-middle- or middle-class families, are essentially free.  Even for upper-middle-class families it is fairly low-cost.  Demand for these “goods” should therefore exhibit relatively low elasticity.

But it seems that education at the vast majority of private, four-year colleges is a luxury good and will be hard-hit by this recession.

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