The Arizona Desert Lamp

Wrestling With Tuition

Posted in Campus, UA Transformation Plan by Evan Lisull on 1 December 2008

The UA is not alone in its struggles with tuition in the somehow unanticipated paucity of state funds. The cover story on today’s Inside Higher Ed discusses a new paper released by the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC — rolls right off the tongue) on how these state schools can address the issues.

Working from the executive summary, the paper spells out an important truism that is rarely used by ASA — the issue is not just the increasing in tuition, but what students are getting for that tuition:

One of the most robust findings in the research literature is that the real cost per student in public higher education is not increasing. This finding was most recently repeated by the Delta Cost Project in its 2008 study, The Growing Imbalance. The constant-cost finding necessarily follows from data that demonstrate that public higher education revenues per student (the sum of state appropriations plus net tuition receipts) was $10,091 in 1996 and increased to only $10,294 in 2006. Cost per  student has remained constant because revenue per student was constant; funds were not available to increase expenditures further. Public university managers have been highly effective at controlling costs; indeed, they were compelled to be, given the resources available. On the other hand, private universities, with increasing real budgets per student, have had significant real cost-per-student increases over the last decade.

Later in the paper, the authors also say:

A basic cost management principle in managerial accounting is that product quality must
be understood if one has any hope of controlling either product cost or product quality. This
simple statement implies that one must be able to measure and understand product quality
because the concept of cost control assumes that one is producing the same “product” over
time. That is to say that one has not controlled cost if the quality of the unit produced
deteriorates while the cost of producing the product declines or remains unchanged.

The culprits, of course, are the state legislatures, but we have to remember that these legislatures aren’t being Scrooges because they’re wicked, evil reactionaries — the state government has other, far more important functions to fund, and their revenues have hurt as well. Not surprisingly, there is such a thing as a trickle-down effect, in both good times and bad.

Rather than following the paper’s proposal to “restore” the government’s subsidy to earlier levels, schools like the UA would be far wiser to follow the path of “public Ivy” U. Michigan, which, when faced with declining state budgets in the late 1970s-1980s, made a concerted effort to decrease their reliance on state funding, and instead worked hard on increasing private donations and other, non-governmental sources of funding. Michigan’s current reputation should speak to the effectiveness of such a strategy.

Yet the paper avoids only arguing for more agitation, which is smart. Instead, it proposes alternatives to make the schools more functional with the resources that they have — akin to our own transformation plan. These include plans such as increasing the use of online delivery courses, the substitution of non-tenure-track instructors for those aiming for tenure, and increasing endowments (as previously referenced).

Even within these priorly referenced proposals, though, there are new wrinkles. For the endowment section, the paper also proposes using endowment funds to build new buildings (to reduce tuition), rather than the UA’s Paulson-esque “economic stimulus package.”

And then, music to my libertarian ears:

I. Deregulation
THE INITIATIVE: Reduce state and federal regulations on public universities so that they
would be free to make decisions and take courses of action that are more efficient.

Universities operate under many mandates from various levels of government. As the proportions of budgets coming from state governments have declined over time, there is the increasing conviction that regulation ought to be reduced as well. Most studies of higher education efficiency note the lack of flexibility universities have due to regulatory requirements. The newly reauthorized Higher Education Act was preceded by debate filled with rhetoric about cost, but the bill was filled with additional regulations that each add to university operating costs.

The paper also has these intriguing proposals:

Provide an ‘out-in-three’ path: The thing is, this is very possible, especially among students who are coming in with AP and SAT II credit. This also goes hand in hand with offering more online courses, along with a complete revamping of the registration program.

Use the senior year of high school more wisely: The authors of this paper want to make it a college-credit gaining year, full of APs and IBs and SAT IIs. I don’t think this is wrong, but it is also already happening at many high schools, so it’s hard to see how much impact this would have.

As far as community college enrollment is concerned, this should be expanded. CCs should be building connections with local high schools, encouraging students to make the jump and working with administrators to streamline the process (regarding transcripts, credit enrollment, status, etc).

In my experience, this process is very hodgepodge and poorly organized; especially for seniors, there’s a strong case to be made for taking half of your classes at HS, and the other half at the community college.  Again though, this comes with changing degree requirements at a high school level, mirroring a change in degree requirements at the college level (see below).

Change degree requirements: Quote of the hour, from Lee Shulman: “At what point did God speak to Moses and say a college education is four years? Go to Europe and it is three years. Did God speak to them on a different day?” For many majors, students are simply accumulated the necessary credits without rhyme nor reason, save degree requirements. These, especially those related to General Education, need to be seriously reconsidered.

ROTC for Librarians: Well, kind of. The paper calls it “burden shifting,” using the military’s providing of education in exchange for service as an example. I almost feel that such a program could save costs down the road. Long-term, certainly, but it’s worth mulling over. Also, this happens on a regular basis in the private sector, as many companies will provide MBAs for current employees — in this deal, both sides benefit.

Financial Aid Reform: Cliche (“ever tried to fill out a FAFSA?”), but at the same time it’s going to be tough. The latest Higher Ed bill hasn’t made it any easier.


Keep in mind, this isn’t a student lobbying group writing this paper, but an association that essentially represents the administrations of these schools. We can only hope that Shelton and Hay are perusing this paper as we speak, since it is a treasure trove of ideas that don’t simply rely on punishing students.


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