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February 07, 2012 6:23 PM The Real College Cost Solution

By Daniel Luzer

One of the better takes on President Obama’s college affordability plan comes from Cornell President David Skorton this week. As Skorton writes in the Huffington Post, sure, it’s time to cut college costs, but that’s not really the important fix here. As he writes:

Public colleges and universities, which enroll two-thirds of four-year college students, need to be treated differently than institutions in the independent sector. As President Obama said in his State of the Union Address, “States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets.” If state support for higher education does not stabilize and, eventually, increase at a reasonable rate, public colleges and universities will have no alternative to raising their tuitions to maintain quality - and our nation will no longer be an equal opportunity society. State support and tuition are major sources of revenue for public colleges. When state support declines — as it has dramatically nationwide — then colleges have two alternatives to maintain quality: increase tuition and reduce costs for operation. Our great public colleges and universities deserve robust public investment, in good times and bad. Without it we cannot offer the superlative education for which our country remains the world leader.

Colleges certainly spend money. They hire expensive staff they don’t need, build expensive buildings with no educational components, and fund much of this with ever escalating student debt.

But while spending decisions like these are attention-grabbing, they’re the equivalent of pointing to the National Endowment for the Arts or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to explain the escalating national deficit (in fact, it’s virtually all Medicare costs).

Sure, the bright new gyms are luxurious and unnecessary. But they’re not really that much money.

They’re not really the cause of the financial struggles American college students are experiencing. At state schools, which 80 percent of the student population attends, tuition is not rising at twice the rate of inflation because colleges are wasteful; tuition is rising because students are forced to pay for more and more of their college experience themselves. That’s because states aren’t providing enough money to fund their state universities.

The trouble with Obama’s discussion of college affordability is that many Americans seem to think of this mostly as a project for colleges. How can they cut costs? But it really shouldn’t be a challenge for colleges; it should be a project for America’s state legislatures. They’re the ones responsible for this problem.

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