A recent visit from a legislative official—seemingly a nice, responsible guy and a friend of Mason—brought comments about his bafflement about how higher education costs keep soaring, tuitions keep rising, there must be a storehouse of waste and inefficiency. I was, frankly, nonplussed—not at the comments, which are now common enough, but at the source, who should have known better since it’s legislative votes that have helped create the current situation.
Since I spend a good bit of time thinking about budgets, I decided that it was appropriate to inflict my futile corrective efforts on the weekly blog.
So for the record (all controlled for inflation): over the past eight years or so (and not just in response to the 2008ff fiscal crisis), the state has cut our per-student funding by 51%, or about $4000. That’s even counting the welcome but fairly slight increase in state funding this year. Largely in response, tuitions have risen about 104%, or a bit more than $4000. But almost all of this increase has been aimed at compensating for the state reduction.
Here’s the clear point: the main reason our tuitions have risen faster than inflation is because the state has changed its policy about paying for the majority of the costs of in-state student education. The deal once offered—the state would pay about 2/3 of the educational costs for qualified, in-state students at Mason—was altered, albeit without much formal discussion, to a system where students now pay 75% of the same costs. The state may have had no option, given other priorities; its new policies may be the correct ones. But there should be no question about what happened. Tuitions have not risen primarily because of frivolous decisions or new inefficiencies in higher ed.
Now, it may be that we shouldn’t have tried to compensate so fully through tuition. The facts do not necessarily prove that earlier inefficiencies did not exist that should have been remedied. We clearly need to take a new look at this side of the equation.
And we did increase tuition 6% beyond what compensation required over the 8-year span, mainly to pay for greater research capacity (our external funding went up rapidly, and arguably this benefited the state, but it did impose some internal costs) and to offer services to an increasingly residential student population.
But these decisions must not conceal the core fact that Mason’s costs have not increased greatly, that the main phenomenon is the change in funding sources, not totals. It may be understandable that various officials want to ignore this, preferring to complain about our irresponsibility, as a means of shirking their own involvement, but the ploy is unattractive.
All this said, we do now face a budget situation in which the tuition compensations will no longer be so available, given changes in market and political climate, so we do need to discuss new policies. My only plea is that we be allowed to do so without the distraction of pass-the-buck rhetoric. Thanks for listening.