Point Tuition Crisis Calls For Hands-On Government
by Freddi deBoer
Counterpoint Get Your Government Hands Off My Education
by Cameron Luther
President Obama’s recent speech on education and the economy, delivered here at the University of Michigan a week and a half ago, revealed that constructive policy and the bully pulpit can work hand in hand.
President Obama’s speech touched on many issues confronting the American system of higher education. His proposals covered a wide range of problems facing colleges and college students across the country. Obama explained the need for report card for colleges and universities, which would convey important information to students and parents about the quality of university education. He further spoke of the need for greater information and transparency in student loan aid, referring to his proposal jokingly as “Know Before You Owe.” But by far the most significant—and what will likely be the most controversial—proposal announced during this speech was his plan to link tuition cost controls and access to federal aid, a “Race to the Top” for low tuition.
A Race to the Top program would tie tuition rates to the access of federal financial aid to universities, a vital part of the funding and economic apparatus of almost all American universities. The proposal addresses a grave and growing national problem. According to PBS, the average cost of college tuition increased by 400% between 1985 and 2005, and doubled during the past decade. This has led to far greater pressure on individual families and saddled millions of young adults with huge debts. While going to college still remains a good economic bet for most, and represents one of our most practical means for broadly increasing economic opportunity, such an immense rise in cost is simply unsustainable. Those of us working within the university, whether on the academic or administrative side, must be clear and forthright: the spiraling cost of a college education directly undermines the values, ethics, and goals of the research university, and they must be brought under control. If we cannot provide an education without wrecking the financial future of a significant portion of our students, we have no business calling ourselves inheritors of the academic tradition.
The finer-grained details of President Obama’s plan remain to be revealed, and as usual, those details will mean everything for this proposal. The President and his administration would do well to avoid an approach that is too heavy-handed or that takes a one-size-fits-all view of colleges and universities. But let me be clear: real, direct action from the federal government is necessary here, and such action must entail real consequences for universities which don’t take adequate steps to control costs. The majority of University administrators have been slow to act, demonstrating that they will not address this problem without a “big stick” to motivate them; the Obama administration is providing one.
Also vitally important was President Obama’s call for more state funding for public education. As a product of public universities, and a current educator at a public university, I find that those outside of academia routinely overestimate the amount of state funding that colleges receive. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that 43 states have cut funding to public colleges and universities since the beginning of the recession. This is merely an acceleration of a decades-long reduction in state funding of higher education. This dynamic cannot continue if the burden on students is to be eased. The economics are simple: while colleges have a great responsibility to lower costs, crushing student loan debt cannot be solved through colleges cutting costs; public universities also need more revenues. States must increase their funding to state universities, with progressive tax increases if necessary. Research suggests that states will receive substantial returns on investments in higher education.
The modern research university’s reputation has seen better days. It is portrayed in the media and the popular consciousness, as being in permanent crisis. And yet historically, the university is a model of resiliency. John Sexton, the current president of New York University, is fond of pointing out that of 80 human institutions that have survived in their current form for 500 years or more, 65 are universities. While this current tuition crisis is real and serious, it is not an unsolvable problem, if we commit to solving it. As the blogger Noah Millman is fond of saying, things that are unsustainable won’t be sustained. The university and those invested in it can solve this problem and flourish in the future, but only if that future is guaranteed by committed and sympathetic stakeholders who want the best for both universities and students.
It should come as no surprise that President Obama expressed major concerns over the price of higher education during his speech on Friday. After all, everyone knows that the price of a college education has been steadily increasing for some time now. And despite the costs, students are still as willing as ever to fork over ridiculous amounts of money to attend their school of choice. Students know, as Obama reiterated, that college is “the most important investment you can make, even if it means racking up thousands of dollars of loan debt. Of course, the ideal would be to get students a college education without the debt that often comes along with it. Well, the time has come that President Obama thinks he has the solution.
He is calling it the “Race to the Top.” This proposal will involve governmental pressure on universities to bring their tuitions down. In a nutshell, if tuition does not come down, the funding the university receives from taxpayers will come down instead. Conversely, if tuition does come down, the university will receive more funding. President Obama is also callingon the states to pick up the slack and spend more on higher education. This way, the universities and the state government will be “doing their part.” At first glance, “Race to the Top” may seem like a good way to bring college tuition down. However, in reality, there is a much easier way to solve this problem.
The first thing that needs to be asked is “why are tuition prices so high?” Ask anyone who attended college thirty or forty years ago, and they will tell you that things used to be much different. Back then, students could work full time over the summer and make enough money to pay their entire tuition for the school year. Nowadays, that would be nearly impossible. To make matters worse, on top of high tuitions costs, education quality seems to be getting worse as well. Many schools have succumbed to grade inflation in order to make it appear as though students are performing at a higher level than they really are. It is time that we acknowledge who is responsible for the counterintuitive fact that technology is improving, but at the same time, the price of education is increasing while the quality of education is decreasing. The responsible party, I will tell you, is none other than the Department of Education.
Because a quality education plays such a vital role in the success of individuals, people assume the Department of Education to be both positive and necessary. The Department of Education’s key mission is to promote education and make it more affordable. However, because of the subsidized loans that the department will give to just about anyone, tuition prices have skyrocketed. As a result, colleges are becoming very inefficient—making poor investments, putting money into buildings that are not necessary, funding programs that do not work, etc. However, because subsidized student loans are so easy to obtain, students still pay the excessively high tuitions currently charged by colleges without much hesitation. Basically, society has drilled into students’ heads the idea that college is an absolute necessity. For this reason, students refuse to let the cost of tuition stand in their way, even if it means going deep into debt.
If the government did not give these subsidized loans, things would be much different. Instead of being guaranteed a loan for school, prospective students would, instead, have to take out personal loans (which are much more difficult to get), try to earn scholarships, or possibly reconsider attending college at all. This might not seem ideal at first, but consider the following: If students are unable to afford to go to college, or decide it is not worth the investment, fewer students will attend. Without subsidized loans from the government, it will no longer be possible for students to attend colleges charging excessive tuitions. Students will begin to choose schools that are willing to charge reasonable tuitions, as these are the only schools the students will be able to afford. The colleges with excessive tuitions will be forced to compete, thus bringing prices down. By freeing up the market and creating competition among schools, the current problem of excessive prices can be solved. This competition existed among schools in the 1970’s and explains why it was once possible for students to pay their own college tuition while doing nothing more than working a summer job. If President Obama’s real goal is to lower tuition prices, then rather than intervening even more with his “Race to the Top” program, his next logical step should be distancing himself and the government from education altogether.
About the Issue
Point author: Freddi deBoer is a doctoral student in rhetoric and composition at Purdue University. His personal website is http://fredrikdeboer.com/.
Counterpoint author: Cameron Luther is a junior at the University of Michigan, majoring in Economics. He enjoys sports, politics, and reading.
Edited by: Consider Staff
Cover by: Jill Brandwein