If tuition policy is a vexed question in normal budget years for public universities, it will be especially challenging to discuss public policy on the subject this year. States are facing record deficits and many public colleges are seeing enrollment and application increases — a formula that could combine to create large, unpopular tuition increases.
In this environment, the leaders of a national association of public universities hope to shift the debate — calling for better information about what really is going on with college costs, and also urging colleges to consider some potentially radical ways to control their costs. “University Tuition, Consumer Choice and College Affordability,” being released today by the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, both defends public higher education and criticizes it. While suggesting that colleges are more affordable than many people realize today, the report sees a “looming affordability challenge” in which public institutions could move out of the reach of many Americans, a potential shift that the association sees as counter to the values of its institutions.
The beginning of the report — consistent with efforts by others in higher education — tries to shift public attention away from colleges’ sticker prices and broad generalizations about affordability, arguing that sticker prices rarely reflect what students actually pay and that affordability depends both on the charges of a college and the means of a student, and is thus unique for individual circumstances. The report then goes on to suggest that much is unknown about whether colleges can save money through various means — such as providing more instruction online — and suggests that now is the time for serious research on such questions. The report faults universities for not having the data that would allow for better decision making.