Oct. 19, 2006 – Federal recommendations to manage a "seemingly inexorable increase in costs" of higher education have provoked criticism from many educators, who say governments need to increase their financial contributions and colleges need to behave less like businesses to keep costs down.
The US Department of Educationâ€™s Commission on the Future of Higher Education released recommendations last month on reforming the system to make it more affordable and better able to prepare students for the work force.
Last year, students spent an average of $16,465 on tuition, fees, and housing at four-year universities, according DOE statistics. That was up from an average of $9,728 in 1994.
Tuition is increasing partly because schools have little incentive to control their spending, the commission said, and since their reputation is measured partly from the amount of resources they have and how much they charge.
To curb the impact of tuition increases on students, the Commission recommends simplifying the financial aid application process and increasing need-based federal aid. The Commission also suggests reducing the number of government regulations universities must comply with, like copyright rules, research restrictions, and reporting of financial-aid and crime data.
The Commission also recommends reducing the barriers students face when transferring out of schools that drive up administrative costs.
John Curtis, research director of the American Association of University Professors, told The NewStandard that while he supports the focus on need-based aid, the other Commission recommendations do not address the mounting unaffordability of colleges.
State support for public universities steadily decreased in the 1990s, according to the Department of Education, while tuition has steadily increased.
At the same time, both public and private colleges have also been spending more on everything from research and instruction to administration and student services. Public universities spent about $42 million in current dollars in 1980 and have steadily increased their spending, reaching more than $170 million today.
Colleges have also boosted spending in merit aid to attract high-performing students, a trend the DOE says has mostly benefited middle- and upper-income students.
As colleges receive less government support, they find their own ways to make up the difference. Educators and activists say many colleges have encouraged research in lucrative fields such as biotechnology. They have also hired fewer full-time faculty members and more administrators. In an effort to attract donors and students, schools have also enlarged their spending to provide attractive services such as recreational facilities or better dining options, passing these costs onto students.
These trends are part of what education-reform activists call the "corporatization" of universities. Critics say that between decreasing government funds and a desire to raise spending and amplify prestige, universities have taken greater amounts of corporate funding for academic research.
Critics say such shifts lead to construction of newer facilities for science and engineering schools while sidelining other types of research.
"You very clearly see that corporate research money is driving the development agenda of administrators," said Ben Manski of the Liberty Tree Foundation for the Democratic Revolution. He is a fellow with the Democratizing Education Program at Liberty Tree, a think tank focused on education reform that supports free public higher-ed tuition and the severing of corporate partnerships with universities.
Robert Rhoads, a professor of education at the University of Californiaâ€“Los Angeles who has studied corporatization in higher education, said the public interest suffers when universities engage in "academic capitalism."
"What happens to [studying] homelessness when researching that topic is unlikely to generate revenue for that department?" he said.
In the midst of price increases, some education reformers want the nationâ€™s public colleges and universities to be free, as those in some European countries are.
"Itâ€™s an issue first of all that I think speaks to a number of both middle-class and working-class Americans," said Preston Smith, a professor and organizer of the Labor Partyâ€™s Free Higher Education campaign. Smith added that shrinking state appropriations, along with the rising demand for college graduates in the workforce, make universal higher education more urgent than ever.
The Department of Labor recently projected that an increasing number of job openings require at least some higher education, while positions requiring just a high school degree make up a shrinking share.