Recent news reports have proclaimed the end to spiraling tuition costs and announced that students and their parents will be "getting a break" next fall.
To some, the news of declining tuition increases may be welcomed and the explanations for past increases comforting. I find both disturbing.It is no coincidence that, while shortcomings of all sorts have been identified in our elementary and secondary school programs, American colleges and universities are models for higher education around the world. This status has been achieved because we have been willing to pay the price for excellence. Tuition is the primary funding source.
But others offer different reasons to explain why tuition increases were so dramatic during the 1980s. These accounts point to the faculty who teach at our colleges and universities.
The faculty, so the argument goes, demanded (and received) reduced teaching assignments in order to devote more time to research and less time to students, making it necessary to hire additional faculty to cover required course offerings. Furthermore, administrators had to be hired to provide students with services (academic advising, career counseling, extracurricular activities, etc.) given gratis by faculty in an earlier time. The outcome of this retreat of the faculty from the classroom has been substantial increases in costs and double-digit raises in tuition.
As president of a liberal arts college, I have been directly involved in developing budgets for the past decade. Although there has been a modest reduction in faculty teaching assignments, this development has not been the principle force in driving up our tuition fees.
If reduced faculty teaching assignments and accompanying expansion of administrative offices have not been the primary causes of tuition increases, what are the reasons? They are, among others:
- Decisions to increase faculty salaries at a percentage rate in excess of inflation to compensate for lost income during the 1970s and to position ourselves to attract new faculty members in the 1990s, when we will experience large numbers of retirements with insufficient new graduate school graduates.
- Costs associated with the introduction of computer technology in administrative offices as well as in classrooms, laboratories, faculty offices and the library.
- Our dependency on certain goods and services, the annual cost increases of which exceed considerably that of the Consumer Price Index (CPI).
- The desire to have a diverse student body at a time when the federal government reduced its support for student grants. The result has been a dramatic increase in campus-based financial aid programs.
Although this list reflects the experience of just one liberal arts college, it illustrates the most compelling reasons for tuition increases.
Even if, in the 1990s, we "improve faculty productivity and efficiency," those forces which caused tuition to increase in the 1980s will still exist. The issue then becomes whether, in the interest of maintaining high-quality programs, we can continue to be responsive to these forces.
Declining tuition fees may not be an announcement to be applauded. Access to and choice among institutions of higher education are important public policy objectives, and there is an obvious link between the level of tuition and these objectives. But the facts remain that excellence in higher education does not come cheap and that the major source of revenue is tuition.
Anyone who cares about the quality of U.S. higher education should be aware that the pressure to keep tuition low may very well limit the financial resources required to keep America's colleges and universities the world's best.