University presidents react to Obama’s cost control plan

President Obama is not wrong to demand cost control and efficiency at universities, but the university presidents are also not wrong when they say the problem is more than that.

When I went to Ohio State back in the 1980′s, I recall my tuition increasing from $400 per quarter up to nearly $800 per quarter or at least somewhere in that range. It was possible to work (I worked 2-3 jobs and 40 hours per week) and pay for school and books, but that seems to be a lot more difficult to do today. When I look at the cost of college today, wow, it’s beyond belief. Schools that always struck me as good, but not great, easily cost $25,000 or more. Even in-state tuition for state schools is high.

The university presidents are right to talk about the budget issues that are out of their control, but really, there’s also something wrong about the money many university presidents are receiving. It’s an important job, but the pay is mind boggling, and the superstar pay for them is just as ridiculous as the superstar pay for athletes or movie stars. The difference is, the mission of the universities is not the same. It’s a complicated problem and if we want to have a competition country, education has to be a lot more affordable than it is today.

The President’s pitch may be a bit of election-year political theater, but he’s right to get the discussion started.

The reality, said Illinois State’s Al Bowman, is that simple changes cannot easily overcome deficits at many public schools. He said he was happy to hear Obama, in a speech Friday at the University of Michigan, urge state-level support of public universities. But, Bowman said, given the decreases in state aid, tying federal support to tuition prices is a product of fuzzy math. Illinois has lowered public support for higher education by about one-third over the past decade when adjusted for inflation. Illinois State, with 21,000 students, has raised tuition almost 47 percent since 2007, from $6,150 a year for an in-state undergraduate student to $9,030. “Most people, including the president, assume if universities were simply more efficient they would be able to operate with much smaller state subsidies, and I believe there are certainly efficiency gains that can be realized,” Bowman said. “But they pale in comparison to the loss in state support.”

What do you think? If you went to college “then” could you afford to go now?

NOTE FROM JOHN: I left grad and law school with $60,000 in loans over twenty years ago. My monthly payment on my debt was equal to my rent. I had friends who went to private undergrad, and they owed more like $120,000. Twenty years ago. What people have to pay now for an education is obscene. I’ve often wondered what the economic cost is of education debt. How much money does it suck out of the economy, and what’s the spin off effect? I know for me, I put off buying my first place until I was in my mid 40s because I didn’t finish paying off my schooling until then (that, and do-gooder jobs in this town don’t pay as much as law jobs). I’m curious about the aggregate effect of such debt on the economy over a period of decades.


An American in Paris, France. BA in History & Political Science from Ohio State. Provided consulting services to US software startups, launching new business overseas that have both IPO’d and sold to well-known global software companies. Currently launching a new cloud-based startup. Full bio here.

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