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.
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.