Monday, January 16, 2012

Cutting College Costs

On Thursday, Michigan state Senator Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor) brought a bill before the state legislature calling for the state to fund the lion’s hare of the cost of attending a Michigan university for four years for in-state, public school students.

The proposal, titled Michigan 2020, is modeled after a similar program in Kalamazoo and is intended to broaden access to higher education and improve the quality of the state’s workforce. A gradual but steady decline of state funding for higher education has forced many schools to increase tuition*, pricing many students out of college.

*I know the graph is from U-Dub, but it was easy to find and drives the point home well. Near as I can tell, the only major exception to this trend is THE Ohio State University, mainly due to living tribute to Orville Redenbacher and University President Gordon Gee’s advocacy at the state capitol, tenuous grasp on the university's chain of command, and irrational disdain for the Polish military.

Let me be clear: making college more affordable is not a bad thing. But the bill itself seems to be about as half-baked as the Daily’s editorial supporting it*. We know that state support for universities has been dwindling. We know that those cuts are often the result of budget shortfalls. So if we take a billion dollars (give or take; actual estimate: $1.8 billion) from the annual state budget what will we get? More shortfalls! How is that in any way sustainable!? Michigan 2020 certainly has a noble purpose, and at least starts a conversation that we need to be having, but it also represents a short-sighted solution to a much more systemic problem: college is really expensive. If a college degree is critical to social mobility and improving one’s lot in life (all that “American Dream” stuff), the cancer of prohibitive tuition costs deserves a lot more than the band-aid measure proposed here.

*“College? Good. Money? Good. Michigan 2020? Super good! Also, please buy that picture we took of Denard last year.”

Anyways, all this talk is pretty useless if I just sit there and yell “you’re doing it wrong*.” So, without further ado, here are three ways to knock down the cost of college and make post-secondary education more accessible to everyone:

*Also considered: this and this.

1. Four downs: enough for football, enough for college

A rather handsome writer for the University of Wisconsin’s independent student newspaper made a similar (and excellent) argument here. Briefly, in-state tuition represents a tremendous discount; there is a substantial gap in funding made up by state/federal/miscellaneous dollars. Students should only have access to that discount for four years. After that, they can still go to school, they should just free up that money for someone else and pay the true cost of their education.

2. Trade in the Caddy for a Kia

Four year residential universities are a great experience. And it’s a rather slippery slope for me to tell people to forego experiences that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself. However, if college really IS getting too expensive and students really ARE suffocating under massive debt burdens upon graduation, why aren’t more people taking cheaper routes to four-year degrees*? Community and technical colleges are fine places to take introductory courses at a fraction of the price. Students struggling financially should consider delaying matriculation at the University of Minnesota (and the price tag that comes with it) for a year at Inver Hills – especially if they are not yet sure what they want to major in. It may not have leather trim, frat parties, or football games, but it gets damn good gas mileage.

*Another option would be three-year degree programs - an approach being explored by THE Ohio State Government.

3. Stick a fork in sports

That last sentence physically hurt to write and will probably never come true precisely because of jerks like me*. BUT, when sports represent a losing venture for most schools, there is no reason to keep them around. If anyone needs to subsidize the athletic department to keep it running (so basically everyone but 25 or so Division I schools), well, screw the athletic department. Take that money and use it for scholarships**, professor salaries, or chemistry labs, anything but flights to Maui for the basketball team or meal vouchers for swimmers.

*I actually chose my undergraduate school based on a blocked punt and the fact that the Gophers still played in the half-empty roller dome. And, of course, the fact that Iowa fans were able to do this inside the Metrodome.

**You know, the academic kind.


  1. University of Michigan athletic department budget (FY2011): $100.3 million.

    University of Michigan budget (FY2010-2011): $1.455 billion.

    Putting ourselves through pain won't solve the cost of education problem.

    1. I'm sure you know that you picked one of the most successful (read: profitable) college football programs in the nation (#4 in 2009-10 link). But really (and I know you know this too), most athletic departments loose money (median of $10 million/year/school in 2010 according to the ncaa: link)

      So, using in-state tuition numbers for Michigan (which are skewed high), sports costs about 400 full ride scholarships annually at FBS colleges not named Michigan, Alabama, Oregon, etc. Say that's 100 schools - that's 40,000+ scholarships EVERY YEAR.

      You're right, it doesn't end world hunger. But if we're trying to find a way to educate people, I just paid tuition for everyone in West Lafayette. That's gotta count for something, right?

    2. Yeah, most schools lose money on their athletics budgets. I'm a little unsure on how to find exactly who are the offenders since the public data doesn't have a line-item for public subsidies, instead there is a "not allocated by sport" revenue section and all schools make $0 or more.

      Of course, Purdue actually costs more in-state than Michigan, has more undergraduates, and nearly has a billion-dollar budget of their own when you just count the general fund, so I don't think tweaking the athletic budget there would fix things, but some schools are arguably spending too much money on athletics. I think Rutgers is dumping money into their football program. However, for the big research institutions in the Big Ten, sports simply aren't going to pay for everything.

      I like the thing about community colleges, though. I think we need to orient our education system more in that direction, particularly for people that are interested in industry after graduation and desire more hands-on training. The four-year degree at a big state university is kind of behind the times for such purposes.

      Also, I may have mis-represented things earlier. The number I cited was just the general fund. The total U-M budget is more around $6 billion and Purdue's is around $1.8 billion with a big chunk of that being the med school (link1 and link2).

  2. What if you break down cost by academic department? I imagine it costs universities substantially more money per science major than it does for liberal arts, so would it not be fair to require them to pay more? Chemistry labs have to be a whole helluva lot more expensive than english hippie drum circle discussion sections.

    1. several schools do have differential tuitions - WI and TX are two off the top of my head.
      I should also pointed out that "hard sciences" generate more revenue - WARF funding (from patent revenues) is a major source of $$ for graduate scholarships in the liberal arts

    2. It's happening right before our eyes!

      No word on whether the Regents considered the rising cost of flat brim hats when making this decision.


Keep it civil.