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Tuition freezes might be just a gimmick

Published: Friday, Nov. 16 2012 2:30 p.m. MST

A number of colleges and universities across the United States are freezing tuition in response to consumer angst about ever-spiraling higher education costs.

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A number of colleges and universities across the United States are freezing tuition in response to consumer angst about ever-spiraling higher education costs. Doubts have been raised about whether the freezes will provide any lasting relief, however.

In some states, tuition freezes are being used as a bargaining chip. A Nov. 11 story in USA Today said universities in Arizona, California, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota and New Hampshire propose freezing tuition for in-state students in exchange for increased tax dollars.

"The strategy follows years of increases," USA Today said. "Tuition and fees jumped 15 percent between 2008 and 2010, led by increases of more than 40 percent at universities that include those in Arizona and California, according to a 2012 U.S. Department of Education report."

Year after year of higher education cuts requiring layoffs, hiring freezes and program reductions preceded the efforts to bargain for funding, USA Today said.

The issue of increased administration costs should be scrutinized as higher education funding policies are considered, wrote Bloomberg writer John Hechinger.

Soaring administration costs are crowding the budget for instruction costs as tuition skyrockets, Hechinger said. Meanwhile, outstanding student loan debt has ballooned to more than $1 trillion.

"Bureaucratic growth is pitting professors against administrators and sparking complaints that tight budgets could be spent more efficiently," he wrote.

U.S. universities employed more than 230,000 administrators in 2009, up 60 percent from 1993, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

"Public universities, which rely on state taxpayers, have become a flashpoint for anger about bureaucratic spending," according to Bloomberg. "State colleges have long been considered affordable havens for those of modest means, yet they have raised tuition faster than their costlier private peers."

The consumer relief provided by tuition freezes is little more than a mirage, though, writes Jonie Finney, a director of higher education research at the University of Pennsylvania. Tuition freezes in several states during the early 1990s had little long-term effect, Finney wrote on the Quick and the Ed blog.

"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," Finney wrote. "Unfortunately this respite comes at the expense of passing on larger increases to students in the next incoming class."

Even when freezes are used to bargain with state legislatures for more funding, families and taxpayers don't end up with stable and affordable high education, she wrote:

"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 inevitable result is that students are paying a much larger proportion of higher education costs than in the past. Stable and continuous state funding at increased levels will be necessary to deal with the problem of skyrocketing tuition costs in a meaningful way, Finney wrote, and states have sound economic incentives for making sure that happens.

"States must begin to view their role as investors in developing human capital," Finney wrote. "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."

EMAIL: cbaker@deseretnews.com

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