Public College Tuition Increases Prompt Concern, Anguish and Legislation
By KAREN W. ARENSON
The New York Times
August 30, 2003, Saturday
From New York to California, the nation's public colleges and universities have posted eye-popping tuition increases for this fall. Tuition will jump 39 percent at the University of Arizona, 30 percent at the University of California, 28 percent at the State University of New York and 25 percent at the City University of New York.
Eighty percent of American college students attend public colleges and universities, and their relatively low tuition is often a prime attraction. In the last decade, average tuition at both public and private four-year colleges grew nearly 38 percent, adjusted for inflation. But that has still left tuition and fees at public campuses well below those at private ones: an average of $4,081 at public four-year colleges in the 2002-3 school year, compared with $18,273 at private institutions, according to the College Board.
Still, the latest increases are prompting an outcry from students, and policy makers are leaping to their defense. Illinois recently adopted a law guaranteeing that public college tuition will remain flat from the time a state resident enters college, so long as the student remains continuously enrolled. In Washington, attention is focused on a proposal to penalize colleges, public and private, for increases that exceed inflation by a designated amount.
"Colleges and universities have not shown a willingness to contain costs," said Representative Howard P. McKeon, Republican of California, who said he would introduce legislation next month to withdraw federal money from big tuition raisers.
Government policy makers themselves bear some responsibility for the size of the recent increases, because their own budget problems have led them to cut taxpayer support for public higher education. Many colleges have tried to close the resulting gap with higher tuition.
In the past, the government has insulated students from the impact of rising costs by picking up a large part of the bill. Since World War II, for example, the federal government has supported the education of returning G.I.'s. And since 1973, it has given billions of dollars of Pell grants to low-income students. State governments have also contributed scholarship aid and paid on average more than half of the operating costs of public colleges in their states.
But as more students have entered college and the higher education tab has ballooned, states are picking up a smaller and smaller share, and public colleges have raised tuition to make up the difference.
As recently as 1980, state and local governments paid 60 percent of the operating revenues of public colleges, and tuition accounted for only 16 percent. The remainder was from the federal government, gifts and other sources.
By 2000, the state and local government share had slipped to 51 percent, and tuition's share had climbed to 24 percent. In that period, tuition and fees at public and private colleges, after inflation, roughly doubled.
Morton O. Schapiro, president of Williams College and an economist who studies higher education, said that through the 1990's, many states allocated smaller and smaller portions of their budgets to higher education, but that when budgets were growing, the impact was limited.
"Around 2001, when state budgets started going into the red," Mr. Schapiro said, "the declining size of the pie and the smaller slice going to higher education made things start to hurt."
Even so, tuition at most public colleges remains well below that at most private ones. Elite colleges like Harvard and Yale that charge $30,000 a year or more in tuition and fees -- and close to $40,000 if room and board are tossed in -- often garner the most attention.
"Seventeen hundred dollars doesn't seem like much," Mr. McKeon said, referring to last year's average community college tuition, but "22 percent of students eligible for college can't even afford that."
Many educators say the best way to keep tuition down is to rebuild state subsidies. They would also like to see federal and state governments increase financial aid for needy students by redirecting some of the billions of dollars now being allocated for merit scholarships -- often for good students whose families can afford to pay for college -- and for tax credits and deductions to help the middle class pay for college.
Industry can offset rising labor costs with productivity gains, but higher education is very labor intensive. Still, some colleges are already cutting back, taking such steps as eliminating faculty positions and reducing class sizes.
Joseph Burke, director of the Higher Education Program at the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, recommends instead that colleges cut costly areas like doctoral programs and professional studies.
But the case against cuts is deeply rooted, said Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
"We still believe that the most successful institution is the highest-cost institution," Mr. Callan said, "and that the most successful president is one who can raise the institution's prestige by spending money."