It seems like tuition “freeze” proposals are gaining popularity again. We’ve been down this road before. Several states froze tuition in the early 1990s (Virginia, California, Washington, etc.) and they failed, in the long run, to make higher education affordable. These gimmicks fail to increase state investment in higher education and they don’t prevent larger-than-average tuition increases after the freeze is lifted. The only good I see coming out of tuition freezes are for currently enrolled students; a brief respite from years of price increases that exceed growth in inflation and family income. Unfortunately this respite comes at the expense of passing on larger increases to students in the next incoming class.
The current proposals to freeze tuition originate from different entities. States use tuition freezes (Rhode Island and Texas) in response to political heat from students and families. In freezing tuition, legislators and governors are let off the hook. They don’t make additional investments in higher education nor face the wrath of students and parents. Some institutions (Minnesota) try to use tuition as the “bargaining chip” to leverage more state dollars.
Neither of these strategies provides students, families and taxpayers with what they really need: stable, predictable, and affordable higher education.
Instead of policy reform to address funding problems, we have policy gridlock and the blame game. Institutions blame states for disinvesting in higher education and states blame institutions for excessive cost increases and reluctance to embrace reform.
While I believe that states have historically been reliable partners in funding higher education, states have not addressed the volatility of higher education funding, at least since the early 1980s. States cut higher education more than other public services in bad economic times and then overcompensate during growth years. And institutions have pushed the tuition side of the equation as much as possible, in both good and bad economic times, to gain additional revenues. Most of these new revenues haven’t gone to improve instruction. The collective actions of states and institutions result in saddling students and their families with a much greater proportion of the costs of their education than in the past.
Policies to ensure stable funding for higher education are crucial. States must begin to view their role as investors in developing human capital. To think of higher education funding merely as an annual outlay without an eye toward the future is shortsighted and will ultimately undermine state growth. At the same time, tuition policies cannot continue to grow at the current pace without serious consequences for access and completion. Institutions also have a role to play in ensuring the most effective use of resources – facilities, faculty time and online learning options. Thus, a model of “shared responsibility” is possible — outlining responsibilities of all parties (states, students/families, institutions). These models will look different for each state, given their unique circumstances. But only addressing the tuition piece of this problem without consideration of the other funding sources does little to solve our current problems.
In the long haul, tuition freezes – a political gimmick – only postpone a needed public dialogue on financing higher education at a time when more, not fewer, students should be enrolling and completing postsecondary certificates and degrees.
photo credit: Morgue File