As tuition costs skyrocket and graduates walk away saddled with ever-rising amounts of debt, American colleges now face a choice: Remain a part of the problem, or begin contributing to a solution.
The average cost to attend a public university shot up 8.3 percent this year, while private institutions raised their prices 4.3 percent. Over the past decade, tuition rates have risen 72 percent, and universities are now taking more heat than ever from government officials, education specialists and middle-class families, all of whom think the higher-education sector hasn't done enough to reverse the trend.
If the current trajectory continues, getting a college degree could soon become cost-prohibitive for average Americans.
"They need to do their part. Right now, they aren't doing enough," Vice President Joseph R. Biden said during a speech to Florida high school students this month. "Right now, there are no real incentives to dissuade colleges and universities from continuing to raise tuition. It's not going to be easy, but there's no excuse for complacency."
Many aren't surprised by the reluctance to tackle out-of-control tuition costs. Universities, along with the professors they employ, have grown accustomed to an open checkbook. Instructors at public institutions earn, on average, about $70,000 per year, yet many teach only one or two classes each semester. College presidents, often pressured to keep up with their peers, sign off on expensive new fitness centers, performing-arts facilities or top-of-the-line dining halls, options deemed more important than reducing tuition for their customers.
But the students keep coming. Since most borrow money or depend on government assistance to attend college, families have become numb to the increases. Diplomas are deemed necessary for financial success, and there's only one place to get them.
"It's a great product to have when everybody wants it. Colleges have had the corner on the credential market, and that has allowed colleges to do, essentially, anything they've wanted," said Jeffrey Selingo, editorial director for the Chronicle of Higher Education, while speaking a Capitol Hill tuition forum earlier this month.
"The wake-up call has happened in the past couple of years. What we're seeing now is, people are saying that a college education may be the ticket to a better life, but not at any cost," he said. "We're finally seeing that the sustainability of this model isn't going to work. I think what you're going to see over the next five or 10 years is a number of colleges start to rethink their model."
Some schools embrace change
The rethinking process has already begun at several institutions. Several years ago, Colorado Mesa University eliminated all of its deans, saving more than $500,000 each year.
"We made the decision to do away with them. I don't think our students are missing [deans] whatsoever," Colorado Mesa President Tim Foster told a House subcommittee earlier this month.
Many of the professors at Colorado Mesa carry nearly twice the average teaching load, reducing the university's number of full-time instructors. As a result, tuition has gone up by less than half the national average in recent years.
Indiana's Grace College and Seminary now offers a three-year degree program, which requires more classes per semester for students, but can cut 25 percent off post-college debt.
Grace President Ronald Manahan, also speaking at the House hearing, said 48 percent of freshmen enrolled in the program this academic year.
"We could not simply stand by and wait for help" in reducing prices, he said.
Dozens of public universities have embarked on "course redesigns," overhauling the structure of many classes to reduce costs. Missouri State University, for example, plans to dramatically alter its psychology classes. By using more undergraduate assistants, digital learning, online textbooks with built-in assessments for individual students and other measures, the changes are expected to cut the university's average cost per student from $73 to $60 when the updated course is rolled out next fall.
Course-redesign savings usually aren't passed directly to students, but any measure that eases the pressure on strained university budgets can help slow the growth of annual tuition increases.
But those small-scale changes only chip away at the problem, and many think true solutions must begin with Washington.
Role of federal government
Critics of the federal financial-aid program argue that no one in the system is held accountable — neither the institutions, nor their students. The Obama administration recently implemented changes that forgive students' debts after 20 years, and limit their monthly loan payments to 10 percent of discretionary income.
Those measures, many think, create an incentive for colleges to hike tuition rates, since they're guaranteed to receive full payment from taxpayers. At the same time, students have little motivation to shop around, since it's become increasingly unlikely they'll have to repay the full amount they owe.
"What kind of a system do we have in this country where people who have gone to college and worked for 20 years still aren't making enough of a salary to pay back a loan?" Rep. Virginia Foxx, North Carolina Republican and chairwoman of the House Education and the Workforce higher education subcommittee, said recently. "What are we saying about the jobs these people are getting that we have to subsidize a system of education that is so costly that even 20 years of work can't pay it off? What are we teaching them? What kind of responsibility do they have for their own education?"
Federal money now accounts for about 35 percent of higher-education spending. Over the past three decades, federal Pell Grant awards have roughly kept pace with tuition increases, and many think lawmakers need to dramatically alter the way government assistance is awarded.
"The only way you'll see changes on a large scale is through external pressures. [Universities] will raise tuition because they can," said Carol A. Twigg, president and CEO of the National Center for Academic Transformation, a nonprofit organization that assists universities with course redesigns and other cost-cutting efforts.
"I think something has to give. All of these pressures are coming together, but the problem is, somebody has to have the guts to step up to higher education and say, 'You've got to do something about this.'"
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