Things have changed dramatically for various reasons, but Rampell argues that “the main cause of tuition growth has been huge state funding cuts.”
When they’re squeezed for revenue, state legislators see funding for colleges and universities as “discretionary spending.” As they cut off funds, educational institutions have little choice but to pass some of the deficit on to students.
It would be challenging to find a place where the slashing of state funding has been more dramatic than in Texas. Today, tuition and fees for a semester’s work at U.T. are around $5,000. Thirty years ago, a semester’s graduate enrollment cost me a couple of hundred bucks.
This trend is wrong-headed. College should be cheap for a number of good reasons, some of which are obvious. Few factors support a strong culture and a dynamic economy more than a well-educated citizenry. It’s a cliche, but clearly it’s still better that 20-year-olds are in college instead of prison.
But the sharp rise in college tuition and fees is connected to an unhealthy psychological shift, as well, a change in how we view ourselves as a society. When state legislators begin to think of education as a “private good,” rather than a “public good” — that is, if you’re benefiting from it, you should pay for it — they undermine the beneficial and democratic leveling effect that easy access to education of all kinds has played in our society.
Of course, the ones pushing higher college costs onto students can, in general, afford to send their own children to college, even at today’s outrageous rates. But the average student should be asking herself, “Can I and should I undertake college work?” She shouldn’t have to ask, “Can I afford it?”
John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.