Crisis in higher education: tuition costs may be at tipping point

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 14 2011 3:13 p.m. MST

A New York college administrator says the ability for the average student to pay tuition may be "reaching a tipping point."

Nancy Zimpher, a chancellor at the State University of New York system, made the remark last week at a meeting with higher education officials gathered at the White House to discuss the looming crisis facing higher education.

The meeting comes at a time in which tuition for undergraduates is rising at twice the rate of inflation and student loan rates are steadily escalating. This is fueling widespread frustration, illustrated most visibly by the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has spread from downtown Manhattan to college campuses all over the country.

While the Occupy movment on Wall Street is dispersing, the frustration of college students continues to fester. On November 21, students at the City University of New York staged a day-long protest of tuition increases, which led to conflict with police and 15 arrests, according to the New York Times blog City Room.

A poll last month reflects these attitudes. "The State of Young America," a survey conducted by Lake Research Partners and Bellwether Consulting showed that 42 percent of participants under the age of 35 are more than $5,000 in personal debt, not including a mortgage, and 68 percent surveyed said that Congress should include making college more affordable a priority.

The tuition problem now has the attention of both political parties. Just last week, Republican Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina held a hearing of the Congressional Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training to consider ways to limit expenses and tamp down tuition.

But Justin Pope, education writer for the Associated Press, emphasized that shelling out for colleges will not necessarily achieve meaningful results.

The higher education system itself is highly decentralized. Distributing money into it will not necessarily flatten tuition rates when it's funneled through the unwieldy bureaucracies of states and universities, he wrote.

Higher education finance expert Arthur Hauptman, in an essay for Inside Higher Ed, said that while the federal government can make a difference in the rising cost of tuition, it will require forthright policy that comes down to loan reform. He suggested that the government require universities to offer discounts to their students who come in already in need of borrowing, and thus limit the total possible debt. "In short," he wrote, "institutions must have skin in the game if we are to put a dent in the size of student debt burdens."

But the administrators of those institutions are not taking kindly to hefting the blame for tuition increases and student unrest. Inside Higher Ed reported that presidents of public universities are frustrated that fault has been placed on them rather than state lawmakers who have approved massive budget cuts. From their view, cuts to funding necessitate increases in tuition if the quality college experience is to be maintained.

Robert Turnage, assistant chancellor for budget to the California State University system told the Los Angeles Times, "I understand why people are frustrated, but a lot of this energy is misplaced. It needs to be directed at people who have decision-making power over taxes."

email: lmarostica@desnews.com

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