- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 27, 2002

Tuition is up again in both private and public universities and colleges, which is another way of saying you should put your hand on your wallet and run for the hills unless you're prepared to take up tent-living or some near equivalent to put your children through school.
I exaggerate, but not much. And I am not exaggerating much when I say that college administrators blithely advise there is no way out of squeezed-life sacrifice and that you should start putting savings in the bank when your first baby begins to crawl. You can wait until later if you choose, but don't wait later than 10 years from enrollment if you don't want Old Man Poverty paying you a visit.
Oh yes, there's another possibility: Let the youngsters take out federal loans that saddle them with crippling debts as they begin their careers.
Parents may gulp and agree to fork over a huge portion of their income for a period of years because, after all, there is a gun of sorts at their heads. A college education besides the intellectual enrichment it provides is admission to the middle class. Fail to spend a fortune helping your children obtain it, and they may end up as adults whose opportunities and income are severely limited.
But there are in fact ways to keep those costs in check, such as recognizing that the federal government is as much enemy as friend in all of this. One consequence of those student loans, some have argued, is to make education consumers less price-conscious and thereby to lessen the pressure on institutions of higher education to control costs.
Ending the loans is not an option at the moment. For politicians, advocacy of that goal would be tantamount to announcing their retirement. And a halt to the program could in fact be ruinous to some families and institutions if there were not a lengthy adjustment period. Some critics of the system are advocating an interesting alternative, however. They say future loans should be most easily obtained by students attending schools that refuse to exceed cost-of-living increases in their tuition raises.
The institutions of higher education say that we should not blame them, that they have tried their best in the face of forces beyond their control. And it is indeed true that there are some forces beyond their thwarting abilities, such as expensive and ill-conceived government regulations.
Yet critics with a taste for truth point to issues not so easily explained away. Many schools have extensively increased the number of administrators to no particular educational avail, they say. Some schools have added programs having little to do with their primary functions of teaching and researching, they point out. Says one analyst, some schools have spent money vying for prestige even when the expenditures contribute nothing to anyone's knowledge or skills.
Then, of course, there is the inefficient use of tenured faculty.
A chief accusation is that many professors don't spend nearly enough time in the classroom, and the various excuses, rationales and dodges fail to convince otherwise. The classroom-evading profs are doing needed research, it is said, and some are. Others are doing silly, sloppy, pointless research, observers have persuasively maintained. Graduate students take up the slack, it is said, but what we have with non-tutored reliance on harried graduate students is a drop-off in teaching quality.
The U.S. system of higher education is often described as a jewel. It does indeed sparkle in its diversity; it serves an extraordinary reach of Americans; some institutions boast some of the world's top scholars. The taxpayer-subsidized state schools have kept tuition lower and more reasonable than the private schools, and the private schools mostly have systems of decreasing tuition for those most in need. Fewer than 10 percent of all students pay the full amount, I have read, and right now, endowments are being hurt by lowered stock values.
But the mountain-bounding tuition increases do add up to unaffordable amounts for a great many students and have not served educational quality. Students, standardized tests show, are not getting better, and many schools are vitiating requirements, allowing students to waste their time in nonsense courses while also permitting even English majors to skip Shakespeare.
The time for reform is at hand, administrators, and if you don't recognize it, it can only be because your are hopelessly slow learners.

Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard Newspapers.

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