- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2003

As the outcry over spiraling college tuition intensifies, fingers point in all directions.

State cutbacks are driving the increases, say public university presidents. Critics blame elaborate sports facilities, other expensive amenities or light teaching loads. Legislators say college officials refuse to bite the bullet and chop costs.

But whatever the reasons, it is now time to stop analyzing the problem and to solve it.

The fact is that many different forces push up college costs and will do so for the foreseeable future. One way or the other, somebody has to pay those costs, including students.

But while higher tuitions may be bearable for families that have shared in the nation’s growing prosperity, they are an increasingly intolerable burden for families stuck near the bottom of the economic ladder, who with every announced increase must abandon or downscale college aspirations for their children.

Despite their higher tuitions, private colleges have solved the cost problem better than their public counterparts. Private colleges provide opportunities for needy students by bidding for them. Each year, high school seniors put themselves on the auction block by sending out applications. Schools evaluate each student’s credentials and make scholarship offers for the ones they most want.

Highly coveted students have a higher market value and thus command larger bids. However, those affluent students who end up paying the full tab do so willingly, because that is the best deal they could strike among their college preferences. This fluid free-market approach has allowed many private colleges to enroll broadly diversified student bodies from all economic strata.

This auction-like strategy has not been used in the public sector because most state schools have historically acted more like regulated monopolies than free-market businesses. State governments hold down their tuitions and yearly increases, and nearly all students pay the same flat rate to attend.

The reason for the two approaches is that public sector students often have few educational options other than those provided by their local state university. Many come from modest economic backgrounds and have weak academic credentials. A growing percentage of them are working adults. Such students cannot comparison shop for their college degrees.

Unlike their private college counterparts, they cannot vote with their feet if the price is not acceptable.

Historically, the public flat-rate tuition model has worked because the price was low enough not to discourage needy applicants. Furthermore, treating everybody the same was fair, because for decades the income range in a typical public school’s applicant pool was relatively narrow.

But in the past decade, this model has failed as price increases have become a major barrier to middle-class and low-income students and the income range of public university students has widened. At Miami University, for example, annual family incomes in the student body range from about $15,000 to more than $10 million dollars.

Across the nation, wealthy families pay just 6 percent of their incomes to attend a four-year college, while middle-class families pay 15 percent and poor families pay almost 60 percent.

It is time to rethink the funding of public higher education. Clearly, a one-price-fits-all tuition model is no longer equitable.

Miami University has adopted a private-like tuition structure that varies the net cost to Ohio applicants by awarding variable scholarships based mostly on need. But Miami is a selective public university, and our plan won’t work for regional state universities, universities with open admissions or community colleges, where applicants are mostly place-bound local residents.

However, the basic idea of using variable tuition charges to ensure affordability is a good idea that all public colleges should consider. The fundamental concept is that colleges do not treat all students fairly by treating all of them the same. This is a familiar notion to homeowners who support their school districts with property taxes. The concept is the “fair share” idea implicit in any progressive tax system.

Public colleges cannot count on their state treasuries to solve the affordability problem. Nor is cost-cutting and backing off on services a solution, because public university salaries, campus conditions and services already greatly lag those in the private sector.

If public universities are to fulfill their mandate to provide opportunities for an affordable college education for all, then varying tuition to students is the only plausible scenario. The historic flat-rate tuition practice of public colleges is no longer equitable for American students.

James Garland is president of Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.

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