If you’re reading, this then you’re probably like me — a college student investing in an education while accumulating student debt. In order to pay for our higher education, we all make sacrifices. We hold two jobs during the school year and try to fit in some homework on the sly while supervisors aren’t looking, but of course in the end we forgo nights of sleep in favor of an evening with the lovely Helen C. White.
As University of Wisconsin senior Adelaide Blanchard, who works at a newspaper and a coffee shop in addition to her coursework, put it, “… College is a world of extremes. I’ll sleep for twelve hours, or I won’t sleep at all.” After seeing too many sobering tuition bills, and well aware of the grim eventuality of paying off student loans, we live on a budget — in my case, this means that my food pyramid is lacking on fruits and vegetables but is characterized by a disproportionate percentage of frozen pizza and ramen.
I’m not going to glorify the overextended college student as a genuine starving artist, living a bohemian lifestyle as an ascetic idealist. The fact that as college students we’ve been willing to make financial sacrifices — in exchange for an education and the long-term benefits that accompany it — has made university administrations complacent, and as a result tuition has skyrocketed.
A brief statistical interlude:
According to a Bain and Company analysis of the sustainability of higher education institutions, “Annual tuition increases several times the rate of inflation have become commonplace.” If you look at a graph with time on the x-axis, the college tuition curve diverges rapidly from the inflation curve, climbing upstairs somewhat exponentially. It’s not as if tuition has gotten more expensive with everything else — it has increased significantly faster than wages, and if student finances were candles they’d be burning at both ends. There’s reason to doubt students have directly benefited from outrageous increases in tuition considering a Goldwater Institute study found between 1993 and 2007, the fastest-growing expense in higher education was administrative costs.
UW is no exception to the general trend of university tuition hikes — yes, education has faced significant budget cuts from the state government — but UW System President Kevin Reilly has recommended 5.5 percent tuition increases for in-state students six years in a row.
One thing is clear — as students accumulate stacks on stacks of loan debt and face relentless tuition increases each year, university administrations and politicians pass the blame back and forth. Universities attest that due to recurring state and federal budget cuts to education, they are forced to raise the cost of tuition. Politicians argue universities have become complacent after years of government support and as a result have become financially inefficient. Both parties are right, but neither is helping the situation of college students — who bear the economic burden of politicians and university leaders who are unable to work together to make education accessible, affordable, efficient and sustainable.
Nowhere was the unfortunate disconnect between the higher ed business and government officials more apparent than in President Barack Obama’s proposal of economic incentives for universities that economize and make education affordable and the ensuing response from academia. Obama addressed universities directly, saying, “You can’t assume that you’ll just jack up tuition every single year. If you can’t stop tuition from going up, then the funding you get from taxpayers each year will go down.” Apparently he hit a nerve with university administrators nationwide because they disagreed vehemently. According to USA Today, President of Illinois State University Al Bowman called Obama’s proposal “fuzzy math,” and University of Washington President Mike Young called the statement “political theater of the worst sort.”
These university presidents have some reason to protest — government is cutting funding on one end and trying to regulate tuition at the same time. However, state and federal administrations have a right to expect universities to use government funds and tuition dollars efficiently. University administrations glow with pride when Obama says investing in education is essential if we want to compete in the global economy and that accessible education is an integral part of the American dream. But when students, economic analysts and government officials demand higher education institutions provide an affordable education and manage their universities in an efficient and sustainable way, their responses are loaded with the sort of condescension only found in the deepest recesses of academia.
Here’s my two cents. First of all, all it takes to provide a quality education is a classroom, a few books and a competent, possibly inspiring professor. The rest — a state-of-the-art discovery institute, a glittering new dormitory on the lake and whatever the hell they are building on Library Mall — is superfluous. But if higher education administrators want to make a business of education, which is clearly their intention, they had better treat it as any other business and start paying attention to economic indicators, rather than running up a tab in taxpayer spending and student loans.