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The Cost of Education

Le Tricheur à l’as de carreau,
Georges de La Tour (1593-1692)

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This picture  has always amused me. The rube at right is blissfully ignorant, while the puzzled woman at center is clearly suspicious. Perhaps her maid is being directed to look into things, impolite thought it might be to have someone in a position to see a player’s legitimate cards. This paintinge is popular because it portrays a good idea. Poker players will have seen many variations, including dogs playing cards. At least two versions exist, each with different behind-the-back cards.

The picture is also a good metaphor for what is going on at public research universities. When questions are asked about why tuition is rising so much faster than inflation, various opaque answers are given. The equation that seems to be in use for setting tuition is of the form:

[$Asked For] – [$We Get] = Tuition Increase

And the justification used to the state legislature is from an old hair-coloring advertisement: “Because I’m worth it.”

This is a short and deliberately oversimplified version of the argument. The situation is reasonably well covered – on both sides – by the books of Christopher Newfield, Unmaking the Public University, and Jonathan Cole, The Great American University.

I’d like to suggest a simple general strategy for helping to clarify matters.

First, establish the cost of education for one undergraduate for one year at the public research university. Of course this will lead to debate about how the figure is calculated, but the result will be that a lot of cards will have to finally be put on the table. Now if the educational cost is less than the tuition revenue and the state contribution, then tuition may not be increased more than the rate of inflation.

Second, establish the unreimbursed costs of research. My educated guess is that it is approximately 30 percent of the amount of external grants – including overhead – and may in fact be more. Where does the money come from to pay for this deficit?

Now even Republicans seem to buy the idea that research is a good thing. Their reasons for thinking so may not be mine, but we are in agreement on this point. So part of the justification for funding from state legislatures should be an explicit acknowledgment that research costs the institution money. Instead of going to the legislature and arguing that we are the greatest because we bring in so much external funding, we should admit that we need additional funds to support external grants and ask for it explicitly.

What I am asking for here is transparency. And the response – at least at my place – is: “We are not trying to hide the ball.” “Everything in our budget is available to the public.”

That’s not good enough. If public research universities expect to be taken seriously when asking for state support, they are going to have to do a much better job at linking the dollars that come in to the educational and research costs of the institution.

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