- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The bad news for those planning to begin college at George Washington University next fall is that they will have to pay 3 percent more than those who entered last year. The good news is that the $41,610 bill will be frozen for the next five years. Of course, that says nothing about room and board, which adds another $10,000 to the cost, making GW one of the nation’s most expensive undergraduate experiences.

But before you thank whomever above you normally thank that your son or daughter has decided to go elsewhere, you may find you are a bit premature in the prayer department. In fact, despite the worst economic climate since the Great Depression, most colleges and universities, private and public, are planning tuition increases in what seems a desperate attempt to offset enormous endowment losses.

This should surprise no one given the fact that academia always has had a tin ear when it comes to reality. Perhaps a better way of describing the condition is chronic obliviousness. At a time when the nation and the world are reeling from unemployment, frozen salaries and drastic depletion of savings, the message being sent by the nation’s institutions of higher learning seems not only insensitive but devoid of common sense.

Most of those attending George Washington and other private schools won’t actually pay the astronomical rates. The schools provide financial aid as high as 50 percent of actual tuition costs. The money is taken from endowments that have been clobbered by an average of about 30 percent and may face more declines. Coupled with the announcement of the tuition increase, GWU officials voted to increase the amount of “buy down” to $133 million from the current $120 million, a boost of 11 percent. More and more public schools employ similar strategies - or were doing so before the roof caved in.

The burden of year-after-year tuition increases across the nation has been bad enough during good economic times, rivaled only by what has been occurring in the health industry, where 12 percent annual increases finally have become disastrous for the U.S. economy. In the Midwest, a number of schools draw a majority of their students from areas that depend heavily on the faltering automotive industry. While the higher college expenses might have seemed small a year or two ago, that is not the case today when anything cutting into the family budget is enough to cause panic.

The arguments college administrators offer to defend themselves are based on old models that don’t apply in the current situation. Schools that ignore or deny the real and psychological impact of their actions court major problems. Yet questioning the wisdom of these increases is always met by the defiant argument that everyone else is doing so and “if we don’t we will be forced to cut major programs that will damage our stature and our ability to compete.”

In other words, the earthquake that would ensue from leaving the herd and forgoing the increase as a display of compassion and understanding would threaten past achievement. It is this “the end of the world is near” defense that is so maddening. After all, everyone knows that can’t happen because keeping tuition the same would force the band to be cut, resulting in a shortage of trumpeters necessary to herald the end of days.

There seems to be little thought given to alternatives, like freezing or cutting salaries or taking any of the other measures being forced on an increasing number of Americans. It is true that during downturns, college enrollments frequently increase.

But, again, this isn’t just another downturn. It is somewhat more risky this time to go ahead as though 3 percent or 4 percent or 5 percent more won’t ultimately result in declining enrollment. Administrators and boards have their necks out. But as one wag noted, academics will accept anything you give them except advice.

Dan K. Thomasson is the former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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