At University of Michigan today, Obama to lay out ideas for keeping college affordable

Jan 27, 2012

In the last two decades, the cost of attending one year of college in a four-year institution has gone from an average of $7,602 in 1990-1991, to an average of $21,189 in 2009-2010.

And for Michigan's 15 public universities, tuition and fees for in-state undergraduates have more than doubled in the last ten years -

  • going from an average of $5,056 in 2001-2002
  • to an average of $10,551 in 2011-2012

The public universities in Michigan, as in many states, have been adjusting to big cuts in state funding.

In her "Open Letter to President Obama" last month, University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman called Michigan "ground zero" for higher education funding cuts:

The state’s significant disinvestment in higher education has been challenging: a 15 percent cut in the last year alone, and a reduction of more than 30 percent over the last decade.

California's highly regarded public university system has also seen big cuts in state funding. And with less public funding, students and their families are paying more out of pocket.

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Obama said he wanted to keep college affordable to all Americans saying today "Americans owe more in tuition debt than credit card debt."

For immediate relief, Mr. Obama called on Congress to extend the tuition tax credit, to keep interest rates on student load debt from doubling, and to offer more work-study jobs to students in the next five years.

But he also wanted more long term planning to keep college costs down:

Of course, it's not enough for us to increase student aid. We can't just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition; we'll run out of money. States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets. And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down.

"If universities can't stop tuition from going up," Obama said, "the funding you get from taxpayers will go down."

Last year, Michigan legislators put a cap on tuition rate increases from their public universities. Most stayed under the 7 percent cap, but some did not.

In her open letter to Obama, Mary Sue Coleman highlighted the fact that the University of Michigan has eliminated or cut hundreds of jobs, and has asked its employees to pay more for health care. In all, she said, the university had cut $235 million in operational costs in the last eight years.

But she said, states need to come back to the table and "reinvest in their public colleges and universities."

"Not doing so." Coleman said, "is shortsighted and threatens to cripple remarkable institutions of learning."

But today's budgetary realities could be with universities for a long time to come, and if that's true, a lot could change at these public institutions.

Jeff Selingo in The Chronicle of Higher Education writes that "states are making tough choices about the size of government, and public colleges are often left at the end of the line."

The bottom line is that we’re likely to face a future where students and their families pay a lot more of the cost of a college education out of pocket. Without grants and loans as a safety net, students are probably going to make different choices than they do now (read: less expensive choices). We’re likely headed toward a future where smaller, struggling colleges need to move to new models of doing business, while elite, wealthy colleges continue to support the current model.

Selingo says universities face the same "disruptive" technologies that have changed how we listen to music, how we watch our movies, and how we communicate with one another.

He points to several examples:

  • MIT's free online courses,
  • iTunesU where instructors can create digital courses,
  • online academic assessments that can demonstrate academic proficiencies to employers,
  • and the example of a professor at Stanford University starting up a company that offers low-cost online courses.

So the colleges of tomorrow might not resemble the colleges we see today.

Today, we'll hear more from President Obama about his vision for the future of higher education.