That’s right, folks.
On some campuses, students actually want their universities to bill them more this year than last. It’s a matter of quality, they say. Some things you just can’t skimp on, apparently.
An article entitled “The True Cost of Tuition Freezes at Public Colleges” in yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education (registration required) focuses on public universities in states where legislators and governors have made it a priority to freeze tuition. These pols find it politically popular to do their utmost to keep higher education affordable.
But students are fighting the freezes, because the are seeing the results of the budget cuts that necessarily accompany tuition freezes. If tuition does not rise, faculty positions, academic programs, and student services have to be cut.
Some states have tried to fill that gap by budgeting more money to the universities so that these cuts need not be made. But with the economic downturn, these states are going to be hard-pressed to keep shoveling money at the universities, when there are potholes to fill, bridges to repair, farmers to subsidize, and health care to dispense.
So students in states like Maryland, Florida, and Montana have been militating to eliminate these freezes, raise tuition rates, and continue to provide quality education. Students know that an education is a good investment. If class sizes increase, if academic programs are cut, or if the lines are longer in the cafeteria and outside the advising office, the quality of that education will decline. At some point, affordability is trumped by quality.
The problem here is that students recognize that there is no free lunch. Most parents have saved less than $5,000 for their child’s education. The same parents don’t want tax increases to fund higher education. Legislators are disinclined to bankroll lazy, pinheaded professors who enjoy employment for life (even though in actual fact fewer than 30% of all instructional faculty at public and private universities are tenured or on the tenure track).
So who’s going to pay? The students! They are the only ones left who see value in obtaining a Bachelor’s degree, and they are willing to go into debt to get one. Of course, it’s important for students to be prudent about how much debt they shoulder. But the fact is, someone has to pay for this education, and in the United States, the default decision is that higher education is not a public good, but a private one.
Students have this figured out. If we want a different system, we could certainly have one. But a new funding structure would require political risk, a reorienting of priorities, and huge changes in how students are admitted to various programs. I think such a national debate about restructuring public higher education would be very healthy, and in the long run, we’d probably end up saving money as a society, and perhaps we’d even boost quality.
But I’m not going to hold my breath.
Besides, in short run, students may continue to clammor for tuition increases. Go figure.
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