In Our November, 2017 Issue:

OPINION: Metro State tuition is a bargain, but …

by

Kudos to Met­ro­pol­i­tan State Uni­ver­sity Pres­i­dent Ginny Arthur for point­ing out how Minnesota’s state uni­ver­si­ties com­pare to pri­vate col­leges. Her Sept. 15 let­ter to the edi­tor in the Star Tri­bune notes that at $7,289, the aver­age state uni­ver­sity tuition is about one-​fifth that of the Uni­ver­sity of St. Thomas, cur­rently sit­ting at $41,133.

That’s absolutely fan­tas­tic — rel­a­tively speaking.

For con­text, try this: When for­mer Gov. Tim Paw­lenty fin­ished his under­grad­u­ate degree at the Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota, his tuition was $1,608 a year (though it was $994 when he started). And the min­i­mum wage was $3.35 per hour. A sum­mer of full-​time work would pay, before taxes, about $1,608.

The 2017 min­i­mum wage has nearly tripled at $9.50 per hour, a pre­tax sum­mer income of about $4,500. Tuition has risen by a fac­tor of nine in the same time span, yet baby boomer politi­cians like Paw­lenty still wax poet­i­cally about the value of work­ing their way through col­lege (even as they decrease the state sub­sidy). As if the expe­ri­ence is even remotely the same.

Stu­dents today should be stark rav­ing mad. This shouldn’t be normal.

Back to the future

Dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, when Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-​Vt., cham­pi­oned free higher edu­ca­tion, it was dis­missed as a pie-​in-​the-​sky pipe dream. Yet, com­par­a­tively speak­ing, Pawlenty’s expe­ri­ence wasn’t too far off.

What happened?

Well, lots of stuff. But three pri­mary dri­vers of tuition hikes are decreased state sup­port, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of stu­dent loans, and the idea that edu­ca­tion is a pri­vate good and should there­fore be run like a business.

State sup­port. Put sim­ply, the state of Min­nesota used to be com­mit­ted to pro­vid­ing two-​thirds the cost of pub­lic higher edu­ca­tion. That stopped in the early 1980s as tuition increased three times as much as the con­sumer price index from 1981 to 1994, accord­ing to the Leg­isla­tive Audi­tor. Every state bud­get crunch was an excuse to decrease fund­ing and force col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties to make up the rev­enue through tuition increases. This accel­er­ated sig­nif­i­cantly since the year 2000.

Stu­dent loan mania. Help­ing enable decreased state sup­port was loos­en­ing the lim­its on fed­eral loans dur­ing the 1994 reau­tho­riza­tion of the Higher Edu­ca­tion Act. The lim­its on stu­dent loan debt used to be pretty strict. Ini­tially meant to be a stop­gap mea­sure that would allow cur­rent stu­dents to fin­ish their degrees, the reliance on loans to make col­lege afford­able became the new normal.

Along with this tsunami of stu­dent loan dol­lars injected into the higher ed world came the pro­lif­er­a­tion of for-​profit schools. For-​profits have been around a long time, but in the past 20 years they have seen enroll­ment increase eleven-​fold — the fastest-​growing seg­ment of higher edu­ca­tion. This leads to the next point.

The busi­ness of higher ed. The idea that col­leges should be run like a busi­ness coin­cided with a grow­ing per­cep­tion that only indi­vid­u­als ben­e­fit from post­sec­ondary edu­ca­tion. Run­ning a col­lege like a busi­ness means com­pet­ing for cus­tomers. Since nearly all cus­tomers have dol­lars attached to them (pri­mar­ily in the form of government-​backed loans), pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, pri­vate col­leges, and for-​profit insti­tu­tions (some with more cred­i­bil­ity than oth­ers) seem to change their mind­sets and focus on find­ing ways to max­i­mize revenue.

Did that need to sur­vive finan­cially deflate higher education’s lofty ambi­tions to edu­cate the pop­u­lace to engage in a demo­c­ra­tic soci­ety? Just con­sider these ques­tions as they relate to decreased state fund­ing, increased student-​loan debt, and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of for-​profit schools:

Who has ben­e­fited the most?

How does increased stu­dent debt affect the choices stu­dents make dur­ing school?

And how about after they graduate?

How have busi­nesses changed their hir­ing prac­tices and inter­nal train­ing pro­grams since 1980?

What is the his­tory of unpaid internships?

In the mean­time, Pres­i­dent Arthur and other Min­nesota State offi­cials are proud of the way state col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties have held costs down while main­tain­ing qual­ity instruc­tion — and they should be. They have done an out­stand­ing job dur­ing try­ing times.

But col­leges could do more if col­leges were funded as if edu­ca­tion were a pub­lic good rather than a pri­vate com­mod­ity. This phi­los­o­phy has a proven track record. And it can be done again.

Ed Day is a grad­u­ate stu­dent in Metro State’s Mas­ter of Sci­ence in Tech­ni­cal Com­mu­ni­ca­tion program.