Rising tuition and the changing face of higher education

Many college graduates likely will face a future in which their plans must be delayed or abandoned.

The specter of spiraling tuition haunts the University. Out of control tuition costs are not just putting additional burdens on students, but changing the very nature of our society.

Consider the case of the automobile. When Henry Ford lowered the price of the Model T from $950 in 1909 to $290 in 1926, the automobile went from being a plaything of the wealthy to within reach of the average family. The United States went on to become an automobile culture with radical changes to the physical, social, economic, even psychological makeup of our landscape – many of which we cannot even perceive because we are the product of these changes. Rising tuition costs have similar effects.

The University has just gone through four years of double-digit tuition increases. From 1994 to 2005 there was a 132 percent increase – a 77 percent increase when adjusted for inflation. From 1971 to 2005 the comparable figures are 1,438 percent and 219 percent.

The administration is imposing a ‘modest’ 7.5 percent increase for this year. This works out to an increase of more than $500. Due to the steep increases of the past few years, a $500 increase is the same in dollar terms as the 15 percent increase of 10 years ago.

We are frequently told that these increases are the result of declining state support for higher education. The state is paying a smaller percentage of the University’s budget. But state support has in fact increased more than the rate of inflation; it just cannot keep up with the University’s cancerous growth in costs.

Where are these costs coming from? Is it such things as the proposed skateboarding park? The $100,000-plus spent on the current University president’s inauguration? Yes, certainly, but a more basic cause is the 74 percent increase in administrative and professional staff from 1993 to 2003 (see Office of the Legislative Auditor State of Minnesota, Evaluation Report Summary 04.02a). This in a period when the number of full-time teaching staff actually went down.

The state is unlikely to have a change of heart and bail us out. The University is simply a poor investment. While the general economy productivity has been rising by more than 2 percent a year, universities are becoming less productive. In his recent book, “Going Broke by Degree,” Richard Vedder has presented evidence that increased state support for higher education has a negative impact on that state’s economic growth.

So we must deal with this brave new world on our own. The immediate effects are that most students must work longer hours and/or incur greater debt.

In 1980 a student could meet their entire education and living costs by working 23 hours per week at a minimum-wage job. In 2002, it would take 36 hours at $8 per hour (Vernon Eidman, MN Applied Economist, No. 708 Winter 2003). Today working one’s way through college is impossible.

Pell grants covered 84 percent of tuition costs in 1975; today they cover less than 40 percent. So it is not surprising that 39 percent of student-borrowers graduate with unmanageable debts (State PIRG’s Higher Education Project, www.pirg.org/highered/ burdenofborrowing.html).

The long-term effects are more difficult to predict. The traditional idea of a university as a place where young adults can reflect on the nature of the world and examine their values is becoming a thing of the past. The word school comes from the Greek skola meaning leisure, it is the opposite of the Latin negotium, meaning business (otium = leisure). In order to contemplate life’s meanings one needs unhurried time – something today’s working student cannot afford.

We are already seeing a dramatic increase in the percentage of students who choose vocational majors over the more liberal ones. This may be the only way they can pay off their debts. For the same reason, one can expect to see fewer college graduates pursuing careers in public service where the compensation comes mainly from the feeling that one is doing good and not in dollars.

Many college graduates will likely face a future where home ownership, starting a family or opening a small business must be delayed or abandoned because college loans have made them unworthy of credit.

This debt burden, coupled with having to pay the price of the skyrocketing federal deficit and the Medicare-Social Security shortfall, will leave our future graduates less willing to make sacrifices for the common good.

The legacy of the high-cost university may well be a smaller-minded, meaner society.

We would do well to step back and think about what kind of university we want.

The administration wants an excellent university. What exactly does this mean? Presumably they want the University to be better than other universities – but in what respects? Excellent teaching? Excellent parking? Excellent vending machines? The stated goal of the administration is to become one of the top three public research universities in the world. Rankings of U.S. universities are notoriously flawed; a world ranking – if it existed – would be meaningless.

Do we want to be excellent? The University of Tokyo is far and away the most prestigious college in Japan. Competition to gain admission begins before kindergarten and its graduates have their choice of the best jobs. It is an excellent university. But it is also known for the fact that very little is expected of its students in terms of learning. They spend four years mostly relaxing and recovering from their admission ordeal. Perhaps an excellent university is an excellent admissions office.

Berkeley may be one of the world’s top three public research universities. They accept about 25 percent of applicants, the University currently accepts about 75 percent. Berkeley’s expenditures per student are more than double that of Minnesota’s. This allows us to infer two things about what excellence means for the University: The bad news is it means reach for your checkbook; the good news is that your younger siblings will not have to worry about the University’s higher tuition – they probably won’t be accepted.

The discussion of the kind of university we want needs to be framed in absolute, not relative terms. We want a good university, and we need to determine what makes a university good. Perhaps the kind of university we want is one that provides a good environment for learning for as many capable students as possible at the lowest cost. Perhaps we want an institution that fosters not the most research, but thoughtful research that is useful, beautiful or even annoying. Perhaps the kind of university we want is a more contemplative and less competitive one.

Robert Katz is a University library assistant. Please send comments to [email protected]