By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International
This coming Monday, President Obama is apparently hosting presidents from about 10 colleges and universities to have a discussion about college costs and affordability. I want to be in that room.
Being a natural cynic (the best researchers, I argue, are cynics, which is why we question everything!), I want to hear first what these presidents have to say and how they divert the real conversation; and second, what The President has to say, since he has really only the bully pulpit to play with on this issue.
I expect the presidents to talk about diminishing state and federal support and the fast rising “costs” of higher education which “force” them to raise tuition and fees. I expect that they won’t talk about tuition discounting, merit aid, and their new and glorious campus buildings that look more like Westin and Ritz Carlton Hotels than college buildings. They’ll stay away from that.
They won’t talk about their multimillion dollar coaches and athletic programs. Especially not little boys and girls. Nor will they talk about how the public largely subsidizes many professors and their cottage industries, where they make thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars on the side while the public pays their salary. And this goes for private, non-profit institutions too, where public money indirectly subsidies institutions through Pell and other grants as well as federal research dollars.
They won’t talk about financial management issues and budgeting, because that would force them to talk about how the focus is on a bigger revenue target, not trying to align costs and expenses. Just more. They won’t talk about how they really don’t know how to run these institutions; they just know how to fundraise. I heard this week that the University of Toronto is over $900 million in their “silent” capital campaign, working toward $2 billion. Not bad for a government organization.
President Obama, for his part, will say that this is unacceptable, citing research, perhaps mine (I know, I know: it’s all about me), which says that this trend in costs and prices in untenable (because it is) and that if they don’t do something about it, Congress will. In theory, that is largely true, but in the end, the Congress that can’t agree on health care or tax increases on the middle class and tax cuts for the affluent won’t be able to agree on anything regarding college costs. It’s been done before, by the Republicans in the late 1990s, and they came up with nada. What are they going to do? A value added approach? On what measure? Cut Pell eligibility to institutions because they are serving too many poor kids? Cut research money to institutions because they serve too many wealthy kids? Huh?
I want on that wall. I want to see if there is any possibility that these (P)residents could change the conversation. Actually make it about students. Wouldn’t that be refreshing. And maybe they’ll still have time to meet with their K Street lobbyists (and yes, every land grant and major private colleges has at least one, if not an actual DC office) and see who else they can get money from.