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Colleges, students get caught in middle of tuition squeeze

Published: Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012 4:59 a.m. CDT

The following editorial appeared in the (Sterling) Daily Gazette on Feb. 7:

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(MCT) — Annual tuition hikes at public universities threaten to make a college degree increasingly unaffordable at a time when possessing that degree is increasingly important.

Without a college education or advanced training, young people significantly reduce their career options and their opportunities for financial success in the 21st century.

So, President Barack Obama’s recent speech in Michigan about rising college tuition struck a chord, although his proposed solution was somewhat off-key.

Obama announced a plan to require colleges and universities to limit tuition increases or face the possibility of losing federal student aid money.

Spoken before cheering University of Michigan students, Obama’s words were music to their ears:

“We are putting colleges on notice. You can’t assume that you’ll just jack up tuition every single year. If you can’t stop tuition from going up, then the funding you get from taxpayers each year will go down.”

The problem, of course, is that tuition hikes are necessary because state governments have cut their support of higher education.

In Michigan, for example, state aid for universities dropped 15 percent this year.

In Illinois, public support for colleges and universities has declined by about one-third over the past decade, when adjusted for inflation, according to Illinois State University officials. In response, ISU raised its tuition by almost 47 percent since 2007.

Obama said some university presidents told him that costs could be controlled through technology and redesigning courses to make 3-year degrees possible.

But other university presidents, including ISU’s Al Bowman, say Obama’s proposal is a simplistic answer to a complex problem.

An alternative for Obama might be to threaten states with reductions in federal funding unless they boost, rather than cut, their financial support to higher education. But that would be another simplistic answer.

Education is a key theme of Richard C. Longworth’s book “Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism.” He calls for the Midwest’s great state universities to expand beyond state borders and find new sources of revenue.

A case in point: The University of Illinois’ Offices of Technology Management earned $19 million last fiscal year by licensing intellectual property, created by the university, to 20 startup companies.

U of I President Michael Hogan said the licensing deals set a record and point to the importance of university research in boosting the economy, not to mention university coffers.

What’s certain is that college costs are rising — up an average 8.3 percent this year in the U.S., according to the College Board. For in-state tuition, fees, room and board at a 4-year public college, the total exceeds $17,000 a year.

Still, the president would be wise not to target universities for a problem that is not entirely of their making.

It would be wiser for Obama to put away the carrot-and-stick approach and work cooperatively with universities to improve their affordability.

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