Wednesday, September 05, 2007


The New York Times ran a front-page article yesterday with the shocking – shocking, I say – news that colleges with reduced state funding and regulated tuition levels have made up part of the difference by jacking up the fees they actually control. The article specified one college charging a 'curriculum fee,' which I thought was especially creative. (There's one college near me – pseudonymity prevents my revealing it – that charges a per-credit parking fee, whether you register a car or not. If you take the bus to school, you still pay the parking fee. To my mind, that's tuition.)

It's a maddening piece to read, but not for the reasons the authors obviously intend.

The purpose of the article, if you read it closely, is to pressure colleges for greater transparency of fees. From the way the article is written, you'd think the fees came up at the last minute as surprises, like those last minute closing costs on a house. There may be cases in which that's true, but they strike me as very much the exception. Most public colleges and universities publish their tuition and fee levels.

To my mind, the real irritation felt by the students has little to do with transparency, and much to do with actual cost. They don't want to pay that much, whether you call it tuition, fees, taxes, or anything else. (There's a secondary but very real issue with scholarships that cover 'tuition' but not fees; in those cases, reclassing certain costs as fees will hit certain students pretty hard.)

This strikes me as of a piece with a story I read recently in which some enterprising social scientists discovered a correlation between tight municipal budgets and the rate at which local police ticketed out-of-town and out-of-state drivers. (Essentially, strapped towns ticketed at much higher rates, effectively displacing their revenue sources from taxes on locals to tickets on non-locals.) In both cases, the moral is the same: needs don't go away just because we wish they would.

I used to believe in 'transparency' as an ideal. Then I got a credit card. About once a month, I get some two-point font, sixteen-page foldout detailing the fourteen new ways they'll try to screw me over this month. If I don't cancel the card, the changes take effect. The 'disclosures' are absurdly long and confusing, and, I believe, deliberately so. They're counting on the opportunity cost of the time it would take to wade through everything outweighing the cost of what you think they'd try to pull. The foldouts meet the legal threshold of 'transparency,' but they do so in such a way that unless you make it a major life quest, you'll never figure out what's going on. Too much information can obscure as easily as too little. (This is why I pay mine off in full every month; I don't want to give the bastards the satisfaction.)

(And don't even get me started on the 'full disclosure' documents from my HMO. Anyone who objects to single-payer health care on the grounds that it's 'bureaucratic' is invited to navigate the phone tree at my HMO. Kafka would consider it 'over the top.')

As public institutions, cc's (and other public colleges) are subject to the political winds. When some folks decide they can make political hay by passing Sweeping Reforms, like tuition freezes or taxpayer bills of rights, they characteristically do so without paying any meaningful attention to why tuition increases were needed in the first place. So the laws get passed, but the needs don't go away. Colleges muddle through by splitting the difference – a few more needs are shorted, and a few more creative funding sources are cultivated. It's utterly predictable. Then students complain about shorted needs, parents complain about increased fees, and the legislators cast about in vain for the next Ward Churchill to blame everything on. This ain't rocket science, people.

If you're serious – truly serious – about getting tuition and fees under control, there's no shortage of ways to do it. You could restrict the range of programs offered (thereby shorting an educational need); you could redirect your mission to serve only the economic and academic elites (thereby shorting an educational need); you could pass universal single-payer health care and get those costs down to the level of, I don't know, every other advanced country (thereby solving an actual need); or you could engineer some sustainable, predictable level of public and/or philanthropic funding for the long term (thereby solving several actual needs). Those are just off the top of my head – it's certainly not an exhaustive list. Or you could say 'to hell with it' and jack up tuition, like the private colleges do.

But to call for 'transparency' and assume that you're solving the problem is just naïve. As long as the underlying needs are still there and the public funding still isn't, a ban on fees amounts to nothing more than a call for a new euphemism. And we academics are very, very good at euphemisms.