Political Pressure Mounting to Control the Cost of Higher Education
The costs of higher education have come under increasing scrutiny during the recent recovery from the Great Recession. Over the past 30 years, tuition and fees have grown at a rate that significantly exceeded general inflation. According to the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO), the published “sticker price” for tuition and fees for the 2012-2013 academic year was more than 3.5 times the published price 30 years earlier, adjusted for inflation. As the overall economy has struggled to regain its footing in the last five years, the annual average tuition increase has been 6.7 percent.
A wide variety of high-profile voices including The New York Times, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and President Obama are openly questioning whether higher education has priced itself beyond the reach of many Americans. A common criticism is perceived “administrative bloat” at many institutions. Late last year economist Rudy Fichtenbaum expressed a widely-held view in The Wall Street Journal that increased costs are being driven by a “metastasizing army of administrators with bloated salaries” and “the growth in entertainment spending and spending on amenities (including) luxury dorms, new dining halls and rock-climbing walls.”
In the New York Times, Dr. Andrew Hacker of Queens College echoes the sentiment that institutions must reexamine spending priorities. “Colleges know that whatever they charge, students will pay, largely by taking out loans. The Reason: Only colleges can grant degrees, an award most young people think they must have. Yet the shameful truth is that too little of the revenue goes for education. Colleges have been rifling tuition checks for all manner of extraneous outlays, with undergraduate instruction barely making the list.”
Regardless of your opinion of these assessments, there is unquestionably a growing perception that colleges and universities must take significant steps to control costs. The Obama administration has proposed that the Department of Education establish a rating system for colleges and universities to hold them accountable for performance and help ultimately bring tuition under control. Evaluations will be based on measures such as the average tuition they charge, the share of low-income students they enroll, and their effectiveness in ensuring students graduate without too much debt. The eventual goal is to tie federal funding and financial aid to performance.