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'Skyrocketing' Tuition: What is Gov. Romney's Solution?

By Paul Faber
Opinion | May 26, 2012


"Finally, since we live in a twenty-first century economy that increasingly demands a college education, efforts at improvement can't stop at high school's end. Students must have access to a wide variety of options that will give them the skills they need for successful careers. We must stop fueling skyrocketing tuition prices that put higher education out of reach for some and leave others with crushing debt."[1] - Gov. Mitt Romney

YOCEMENTO, Kan. - Let's grant that tuition is "skyrocketing." What could Gov. Romney be advocating as a way of putting higher education in reach without crushing debt?

Broadly speaking, there are two strategies for making higher education accessible.

First, someone other than the student could pay for some or all of the costs. Since public education began in the United States in the 19th century, there have been two ways of doing this. One of those ways is by having the people of a community agree to contribute money and pay for a school or university, even when these people are not students at the time. So for many years the people of the state of Kansas have agreed to contribute money to the building and operation of state colleges and universities. Similarly, the people of the country as a whole have sometimes agreed to support specific activities at universities--activities such as research into types of wheat that would grow best on the high plains, for example, or constructing buildings in which science classes can be taught--and the people of more limited communities have agreed to provide money for specific local institutions, such as the people of Barton County have done in building and operating Barton County Community College.

In addition to providing support for the construction or operation of a university, both the people of Kansas and the people of the country more generally have tried to fight the high cost of education by providing students with financial aid: scholarships, grants, and subsidized loans.

This strategy for keeping costs down has, however, become rather unpopular lately with some of the people of the community, particularly Republicans such as Gov. Romney. At Fort Hays State University, for example, 20 years ago the people of Kansas contributed about 75% of the cost of educating a student, and the student's tuition had to cover only 25% of the full cost. Now, however, the state contributes slightly less than the student does. So the people of Kansas have made students double their share of the costs. And this week Gov. Sam Brownback has signed into law a set of tax cuts that are projected by the state to produce a situation in which the current levels of state programs--including education--will exceed state revenue by about 36% in six years.[2] Because support for higher education is a significant part of the state budget--not as large as elementary and secondary education, but very significant nevertheless--it is very likely that the state will be cutting its support for students and their universities. Similarly, many representatives of the people at the national level have been advocating cutting aid to students through, for example, the Pell Grant program.[3]

So if Gov. Romney does not want to fight "skyrocketing tuition" and "crushing debt" by providing more support, what can he propose to do?

Well, the second broad strategy for making higher education more accessible would focus, of course, on lowering tuition and other costs of education. How can universities lower their costs? Again, there are a number of possibilities and combinations.

Some universities are trying to increase revenues from other sources. A few universities can make a profit by entertaining paying customers with athletic contests, though most cannot. (22 turned a profit in 2010, though the average Division IA university lost $11.6 million in 2010 in its athletic program.[4]) More common is the attempt to increase revenue by contracting with government agencies or private enterprises to do research. Most common of all are the efforts aimed at securing donations. Furthermore, almost all institutions try to rent out meeting rooms and dorms and other facilities at times that does not conflict with their core missions. All of these efforts are important, and they do help to keep tuition down. But the prospects for any of these sources of revenue increasing very much are not good. Universities are already doing these things.

Besides increasing non-tuition revenues, universities can and do try to cut costs. Because the cost of teaching is normally the highest of those costs, this would mean that we would be trying to cut down on the cost of teaching. Here, too, there is a variety of ways that this could be done:

  • Increasing the workload of the current range of faculty by eliminating research and / or service. Eliminating service means that communities would go down in the quality of life in some ways, while eliminating time for research would mean that faculty members would not be keeping up with developments in the field, although there would also be fewer developments. Would we have been happy if there had been no technological or medical developments since the 1950's?
  • Increasing the workload of the faculty by having them teach bigger classes. Although smaller classes are normally associated with a higher quality of education, larger classes--especially those in which a faculty member can be assisted by a graduate student or by technology--are being put into use in many universities.
  • Relying upon more poorly paid part-time instructors. This, too, is becoming quite common among larger universities (nationwide about 30% were part-time or temporary faculty in 1975, but that had climbed to about 48% in 2005; when compared on an hourly basis, these part-time or temporary faculty earn 22 to 40% less than full-time core faculty members do[5]).
  • Outsourcing the teaching to faculty in or from nations in which faculty work more cheaply than is done in the United States. Universities currently are hiring many faculty who are not from the United States, but the shortage of faculty members in many subjects has meant that faculty salaries have not dropped. On the other hand, a university could hire faculty who remain in their home country to teach American students over the internet. One would expect that there could be some quality control problems in this latter sort of situation, but it may be a way of cutting costs and fighting the "skyrocketing" of tuition.
  • Or, of course, just pay faculty less. As obvious as it may seem, that is not such an obvious solution either. Those who get a doctoral degree or another so-called terminal degree are among the top 10% of the American people in terms of education, yet salaries paid by universities do not put their faculties among the top 10% in terms of income. Hiring faculty is, in fact, competitive; well qualified and high performing faculty often turn down one university to teach at another or to go into the private sector. So if pay were cut at public universities, they would in all likelihood lose a number of their high performing faculty.

The cost of higher education is a significant barrier for many prospective students. Gov. Romney, and others who wish to combat the high cost of tuition, have only a few arrows in their quiver. Basically, they can entrust higher education more to computers, to part-time instructors, to the more poorly performing instructor, or to the outsourcing of education.

If we vote this type of person into office, we should not be so surprised if he does what he says he will do.



[1] "Romney's Education Speech - Text," Washington Post. Retrieved May 26, 2012, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/romneys-education-speech--text/2012/05/23/gJQAUAtpkU_blog.html. The emphasis is added.
[2] "Tax Cuts Worry Education Advocates," Andy Marso, Topeka Capitol Journal, May 22, 2012. Retrieved May 26, 2012, from http://cjonline.com/news/2012-05-22/tax-cuts-worry-education-advocates.
[3] "Don't Gut Pell Grants," Washington Post, July 16, 2011. Retrieved May 26, 2012, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/dont-gut-pell-grants/2011/07/05/gIQA2RInII_story.html.
[4] "22 Elite College Sports Programs Turned a Profit in 2010, but Gaps Remain, NCAA Reports Says," Libby Sander, Chronicle of Higher Education, June 15, 2011. Retrieved May 26, 2012, from http://chronicle.com/article/22-Elite-College-Sports/127921/.
[5] "Who Are the Part-Time Faculty?," James Monks, Academe Online, July-August 2009. Retrieved May 26, 2012, from http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/academe/2009/JA/Feat/monk.htm.

1 Comment

Paul--This echoes my sentiments. It's disingenuous for people like Brownback and Romney to give lip service to quality public education at the same time they're doing their best to kill quality public education. I have a personal stake in this situation, as both my son and his wife work at KU. He's with the Kansas Geological Survey and she works in the chancellor's office. I'm quite sure their working conditions are going to be affected by these tax cuts.

Thanks for posting this.

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