My wife tuned to Lou Dobbs on CNN a few nights ago (October 24) and called me down from my home office to view his interview with Sandy Baum of the College Board (transcript available). Dobbs organized the interview to comment on the decreasing affordability of higher education to the middle class, to wit: "Again, I'm going to end it by just adding one more time, the management of those state universities is atrocious and costs are out of control. And it's not fair to our middle class students and those who aspire to the middle class to be saddled with that kind of mismanagement and that kind of financial burden."
Fast forward five days to the October 29 Sunday edition of the Washington Post, which I just read in my DC hotel room. The Post's Michelle Singletary decried "College Costs: A Tough Equation" to headline her comments. Dobbs, Baum, and Singletary were commenting on a recent report from the College Board, Trends in College Pricing 2006. The report cites a 35% increase in inflation-adjusted tuition increases in four-year public and private colleges and universities over the past five years -- accounting for Dobbs' comment about poor management of per-student operating costs in four-year public universities. The 5-year 35% inflation-adjusted increase amounts to approximately 6% per year. Defenders of public four-year institutions may then point out that this year's average tuition is a bit shy of $6,000, which would mean an increase of about $360 for next year -- not so bad in absolute terms.
Still, it's difficult to dismiss sometimes brash and overly simplifying commentators, such as Dobbs, because of a third report, Trends in Student Aid 2006, that makes clear that financial aid is not keeping pace with the rising price of net tuition for many students. Dobbs and Singletary, for example, believe that a gap in need-based aid is resulting in a growing migration away from higher education for students from lower to middle income brackets, in spite of the good news from a 2005 revision of another report from the College Board, Education Pays 2004. That report documents the annual and life-time relative financial advantages of a two-year degree over a high-school degree, a baccalaureate degree over a two-year degree, and a post-baccalaureate degree over a baccalaureate degree.
So the task for higher education and its policy makers is to balance what higher education charges students, what students and their families can afford to pay, and what governments at all levels should pay for common-good public higher education. The goal is a complex one. For example, there is a relatively bright note in Trends in College Pricing 2006, which all three commentaries failed to mention. The picture for public two-year colleges is quite different than for four-year public universities. Indeed the report states that, "After grants and tax benefits are considered, full-time students enrolled in public two-year colleges and universities pay less than $100 on average in net tuition and fees. After adjusting for inflation, the net price students actually pay is lower in 2006-07 than it was a decade earlier" -- surely one of the reasons that interest and enrollments in community colleges continue to increase.
All of this continues to reinforce my view that higher education and its policy makers need to understand the role that technology can play in measurably improving and accounting for institutional performance -- the theme of this blog. Accountability and productivity count!