Students get cheated, on many levels

/ 4 April 2012 / jennifer

Christopher J. Cramer, Star Tribune Commentary, April 4, 2012 –

Let’s walk through a chart that shows why the tuition burden is changing.

Graphic by: Mark Boswell

That time of year has arrived when high school seniors and their families huddle with college admission offers and make the tough decision about which school is best. For most, cost is a major factor in the decision. That’s true for my family as well. It’s our second time; another child started college in 2010.

I’ve been following tuition trends a bit longer than most, though, because I’m a professor of chemistry at the University of Minnesota. (Incidentally, if you’ve heard some rumor that professors’ kids get free rides, I can tell you there’s no such benefit, at least not at the U.) Given my job, I’ve certainly been asked over the years, “How can tuition be rising so rapidly?”

Mind if I put on my professor’s hat for a moment? First, I’d like you to take a look at a graph I’ve provided. (I know, I know, but I am a professor, after all …) It comes from a 2012 report of the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) for all 50 states. There’s a graph for every state, but I just want to focus on Minnesota.

To make it easy, let’s start with 1999, in the middle. That was the year that the state appropriated $10,089 — its most-ever — per full-time student in public higher education (the bottom bar of the two stacked bars for 1999).

Also in 1999, $3,619 of net tuition (the top bar) contributed to the total amount spent per student, which was $13,708 (all figures adjusted for inflation). If you look at the wavy line passing through the bars, that shows how many students were enrolled that year –about 155,000 (scale on the right).

Now, let’s look at 2011, the last year for which we have data. First, notice that the wavy line is up to about 215,000. So, we’ve got 60,000 more students in public higher education.

Next, notice the total of the 2011 spending. It’s $12,657 per student (the sum of $5,221 and $7,436). So, point No. 1: Since 1999, public institutions are educating lots more students, and they’ve reduced the costs to educate them by a bit more than $1,000 per student.

But wait, if we’re now spending less than we did in 1999, why are families having to come up with so many more tuition dollars?

Remember that there are two bars that add up to the total cost — the state appropriation and the tuition revenue. Notice that from 1999 to 2011, the state cut its contribution per student by $4,868. Actually, would you care to guess which state out of 50 cut its education spending by the largest amount over that time period — whether expressed as a percentage or in total dollars?

Sadly, that would be Minnesota; the average state cut in the SHEEO report over this time period was 21 percent, compared with 48 percent for Minnesota. We — through our elected representatives — decided to disinvest in higher education more than any other state over this time period.

Ouch. And, importantly, since many students pay a net tuition price that is substantially reduced by financial aid, the sticker tuition price has had to rise by more than the state support has gone down in order to maintain a constant revenue stream.

From my personal perspective, public higher education is now confronted by two very challenging trends. First, there has been a disturbing loss of societal commitment to “public goods.”

Second, attacking all public institutions, and the people who staff them, seems to have become a 21st-century blood sport, with repeated demands to freeze salaries, cut benefits, and generally punish individuals who 50 years ago might instead have been admired for a dedication to service. That is one way to attack labor costs.

I’m still committed to providing the best value I can to the students I teach. But I do hope that Minnesotans see fit in the near future to recapture a commitment to higher education as a worthwhile public, and not merely private, good. I affirm that any such commitment must be answered by stewardship focused directly on reducing tuition burdens for Minnesota families.

And, self-indulgently, I hope that I managed to teach something here — can’t help that; sorry, it’s in my blood.


Christopher J. Cramer is a chemistry professor at the University of Minnesota.