The high cost of lower tuition

Feb. 2, 2012, 10:44 a.m. | 12 years, 5 months ago

This article was written by the Silver Chips Print Editorial Board and is intended to represent the official views of the newspaper.

With the national average in student loan debt quickly outpacing the national average in credit card debt, it is clear that the high cost of college is not a problem that the country can afford to ignore.

President Barack Obama brought up the high cost of higher education at the State of the Union, and proposed a more detailed plan for bringing down the cost of college nationwide at a Jan. 27 speech at the University of Michigan.

At face value, Mr. Obama's new plan to reign in excessive tuition hikes is hard to argue against: expanding low-interest loans, supplemental grants and work study programs could vastly increase college opportunities for millions of students. However, the plan's flaws lie not in the fundamental ideas, but in their proposed execution. Although Mr. Obama's focus on increased federal funding for colleges is a step in the right direction, it is still far from making higher education an affordable option for everyone.

The president's prospective methods of university cost control are ambitious - not to mention expensive to implement. Even if the proposal does not require billions of federal dollars to implement, the possibility of our stagnant Congress approving such spending in the current economic climate seems dubious at best.

What makes the plan so costly is that the core of the plan lies in providing financial rewards to colleges who limit tuition increases to limits set by the Obama administration. As such, it's Race to the Top 2.0: to receive federal grant money, universities would have to meet the administration's goals, much like how individual states had to meet one-size-fits-all national education goals to receive additional funding in Race to the Top. Like Race to the Top, which denied additional funding to states with inadequate proposals, the colleges that fail to reach the administration's definition of low tuition rates will lose federal funding, which could ultimately hurt students.

A college that is punished with reduced federal funding could quickly turn into an institution that shuts out needy prospective students. Tuition rates at these schools would rise more quickly and student debt would grow, exacerbating the very problem that Mr. Obama is rightly trying to prevent.

The plan also fails to account for the current economic climate and its effect on public universities' state subsidies. Public schools rely on taxpayer money to keep tuition rates low for in-state students, but recent budget deficits have created cashed-strapped states that are quick to trim their education funding. Reduced funding at the state level often forces colleges to raise tuition rates in order to pay their bills, as was the case in 2011 when public universities in Maryland were forced to initiate tuition hikes of three to six percent following a reduction in subsidies.

Tuition hikes are an unfortunate solution to closing universities' budget gaps, but for states that cannot avoid these natural tuition increases, withholding federal funds only aggravates the problem of expensive tuition. The vicious cycle of tuition hikes, decreased federal funding and then more tuition hikes could inflate the current crisis beyond repair, and essentially accomplish none of the administration's tuition reduction goals.

The government is responsible for making every effort to expand access to higher education, but the current proposal has too many problems to be effective, because it has the potential to harm state universities financially and even shut out the very low-income students it is most designed to help.

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