The cost of higher education across the country is skyrocketing. Tuition is increasing at a much faster pace than family income, and states are working to ensure higher education doesn’t become out of reach for the neediest students.
While states are strapped for funding in these tough economic times, some experts in higher education financing say there are ways to ensure tuition increases don’t get out of control.
Former Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton, who was recently appointed to the state’s Council on Postsecondary Education, said states should ensure universities are operating at high levels of efficiency. “If your institutions are running reasonably efficiently, if you cut funding, you’re going to cut quality or quantity,” he said.
He said it’s important state and university officials understand the need for balance. “You could certainly cut the costs but you could destroy quality,” he said.
Once efficiency level is determined, Patton said, the governor, legislature, universities and higher education governing boards such as the one on which he now serves must figure out how to divide the costs.
“Does the state make the decision that we’re going to let all of society pay for it because all of society benefits?” Patton asks.
Dan Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, believes that it should.
“I think, in terms of return on investment and overall economic prosperity, investment in higher education really deserves a higher priority setting for state spending and public policy,” he said.
Hurley said ideally state funding should increase 2 percent to 3 percent and tuition should increase similarly in order to fully fund universities. “That’s a good contract between families and the state,” he said.
His association also encourages strengthened investment in need-based aid, education tax credits and state-coordinated loan forgiveness programs for high-demand occupations such as engineering, sciences and health care, and for critical public sector occupations, such as teaching.
Patrick Callan, president of National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, agrees that more money is needed for higher education across the country, but believes that should be accompanied by more effective use of the resources as well.
“If it’s just about being relatively free and easy with money for higher education when you have it, with very little demands, and then cutting the budget when you have to and replacing it with tuition—which is kind of what has been with public policy in a lot of states for the last 40 or 50 years—that isn’t going to get us there,” he said.
And he encourages checks and balances for tuition hikes. “The best way to get steep increases in a hurry, as some states have done, is to deregulate it or to be entirely deferential to the colleges and universities,” he said.
Callan points out that states haven’t abandoned higher education funding. In fact, he said, the investment has increased from about $19.5 billion in 1980 to about $70.5 billion today.