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January 30, 2012 6:59 PM One Way to Prevent Price Hikes

By Daniel Luzer

For better or worse, President Obama’s plan to try to cut colleges cost by using federal student aid to reward or punishing schools for tuition increases is now up for debate. The critics are weighing in. College administrators don’t seem to like it much, arguing that it could force cost cutting that could undermine the quality of education. But there are clearly some places where cost cutting might improve things.

According to an Associated Press piece at Fox News:

Fuzzy math, Illinois State University’s president called it. “Political theater of the worst sort,” said the University of Washington’s head.
President Obama’s new plan to force colleges and universities to contain tuition or face losing federal dollars is raising alarm among education leaders who worry about the threat of government overreach. Particularly sharp words came from the presidents of public universities; they’re already frustrated by increasing state budget cuts.
The reality, said Illinois State’s Al Bowman, is that simple changes cannot easily overcome deficits at many public schools. He said he was happy to hear Obama, in a speech Friday at the University of Michigan, urge state-level support of public universities. But, Bowman said, given the decreases in state aid, tying federal support to tuition prices is a product of fuzzy math.

He’s right, of course, that the main reason for tuition hikes is the steady decline in state funding. But so what? For years the administrators at state universities have enthusiastically hiked tuition, pleading that there was really nothing for them to do. They had less money from the states; they had to hike tuition.

There may be some truth to this assertion, but there’s fuzzy math going on here as well. The public colleges get less money from the legislatures and so they pass tuition increases to students. It’s the students who suffer here even though legislative appropriations aren’t their fault and there are, for instance, many other ways to save and raise money.

Bowman cautions that trying to operated “more efficiently” has costs: “You could hire mostly part-time, adjunct faculty,” he told the AP. “You could teach in much larger lecture halls, but the things that would allow you achieve the greatest levels of efficiency would dilute the product and would make it something I wouldn’t be willing to be part of,” he said.

Well yes, but Illinois State also recently build a new 200,000 sq ft gym on campus. It cost $49.6 million. Bowman earns $384,000 a year. The median annual salary for a college president, in contrast, is $243,925. Adjunct faculty clearly isn’t the only cost saving measure possible for state universities.

Sure, meeting Obama’s challenge of keeping tuition down is going to be hard.That’s the point. But it’s possible. I’m sure the fitness center is very nice, but it wasn’t essential and at least now schools might have real incentive to keep student tuition down.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer