Essays in Higher Education Politics
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Imlay, Samuel J.
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CitationImlay, Samuel J. 2018. Essays in Higher Education Politics. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractA century of skill-biased technological change has greatly increased the private- and social returns to public investments in tertiary education, but academic- and financial barriers to college entry lend publicly-financed higher-education spending an unusual distributive incidence. This three-paper compilation considers how unequal college access informs voters' and parties' preferences over the level- and design of public higher-education subsidies in the United States.
Higher-education spending in US public opinion evaluates the role of political orientations and distributive considerations in Americans' support for federal financial-aid spending. I find that general fiscal preferences powerfully inform Americans' support for federal higher-education spending, and neither relative income nor spatial proximity to graduates' economic spillovers increases support in the general public. By contrast, the distributive consequences of unequal college access do leave an imprint on the preferences of those most proximate to students' college-going decisions: Among parents of teenage children, household income exerts a parabolic effect on support for higher-education spending, a relationship expected by political-economic models that theorize “ends-against-the-middle" patterns of support for tax-financed tuition subsidies. I argue that the large, positive, and non-monotonic effect of teenage children by household income reflects the increased material salience of college costs to "high-school" households and raises the possibility that elite rhetoric could activate materially self-interested support for higher-education spending among pivotal middle-income voters. These findings suggest that tuition subsidies hold special appeal for middle-class households and offer Left parties promising coalitional opportunities unavailable to the Right.
Conditional partisanship in higher-education appropriations then turns to higher-education appropriations in American states in order to evaluate political scientists' contending hypotheses about the effects of unequal college access on parties' support for per-pupil higher-education subsidies. Drawing upon direct measures of the income gradient in public colleges, I show that states vary widely but stably in the socioeconomic profile of their publicly-enrolled students. I find that the appropriations effect of changes in state-government ideology depends on the extant socioeconomic profile of a state’s public-college students: state-government liberalism reduces higher-education appropriations in states where lower-income students are severely underrepresented in state colleges, but increases appropriations in states where students from the bottom 60% of state households are proportionately represented in public higher education. Although these effects are modest in size--a typical change in government partisanship might alter a state’s higher-education appropriations tax effort by up to ±4%--the study’s findings suggest that households’ unequal access to subsidized college informs partisan governments' budgetary choices within state higher-education appropriations’ longstanding decline.
Finally, Tuition, targeting, and tradeoffs assesses Americans’ preferences over the multidimensional design of higher-education subsidies using a conjoint survey experiment with randomized policy-proposal vignettes that vary in their subsidy instruments, eligibility requirements, and funding schemes. I find that fiscal- and budgetary costs loom large in Americans’ support for higher-education programs, but elements of policy design matter as well: respondents (particularly Republicans) prefer subsidies packaged as tax credits; subsidies targeted to community-college students receive broad and bipartisan support because Republicans prefer them; and, contrary to the expectations of "benefit universalists," strongly means-tested programs receive greater support than broad, income-based subsidies (an effect driven by Democrats). The study’s results shed light on differences in extant tuition-subsidy programs' popular support and provide empirical grounding for normative debates over the prudent design of tuition subsidies by estimating tradeoffs that programs confront between efficiently targeting marginal students and securing broad popular support.
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