Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Tuition/Aid Tango

(Or, worst “Dancing With the Stars” episode ever.)

In discussion with my counterparts across my state, I'm hearing that most of the other cc's are planning some pretty dramatic tuition/fee increases this Fall to compensate for the one-two punch of falling state aid and spiking enrollments.

It's a perfectly rational move, from a budget-balancing standpoint. If costs are going up and one major source of income is dropping, you need more income from another source. With Pell grants going up and a nasty recession driving enrollment gains, the tuition/fee side is where there's room to move. If we increase the tuition/fee total by less than the increase in Pell grants, then our neediest students are unhurt, so it's all good. It would be even better if we got direct operating aid instead of getting it indirectly through tuition, but this still works.

But we're balking a bit, and not only for the reason you'd think. Yes, we're reluctant to raise tuition during a recession, and the idea of shifting ever more of the cost of operation onto the students violates the premise of public education. But the reason goes beyond that.

It's an annual dance we do with the state. The state hates to see tuition and fees increase, since they come across to the public – not unreasonably – as tax increases. But it obviously has no intention of forestalling the revenue shortfall on its own, and it won't stand for us shutting down politically popular programs. (Eliminate the music and nursing programs, and we're halfway there.) So we can't, say, raise revenues or cut costs in significant ways. Taking both of these moves out of the picture narrows the options somewhat.

So we get into a weird pas de deux with the state. It tries to figure out the smallest restoration of cuts it can make to persuade us to minimize any cost increases. And we try to figure out the highest cost increases we can get away with (and live with, ourselves) without incurring the wrath of the state (that is, without getting our aid cut by enough to cancel out the tuition/fee increase).

In a normal year, this dance takes a month or so, both sides settle on something not-quite-satisfying, and we get on with it. This year, the dance feels more like a game of chicken. (Don't mix metaphors like this at home, kids – I'm a trained professional!) The state's fiscal picture is worsening so quickly that any figure it agrees to now will probably be revised downward in a few months, then revised downward again after that. We don't want to give the state any excuses to make the cuts even worse, but at the same time, we'd be foolish to take any implied promises as anything more than hopeful guesses. So the usually-complicated ritual is much more complicated this year.

(Then, of course, there's the stimulus package. I see some great big numbers with some very vague rules attached – heaven only knows how much, if any, will find its way down here. To the extent that we're lumped in with the K-12 system, I don't like our chances. And the persistent fixation on construction, rather than instruction, doesn't help. Yes, construction workers spend their salaries. You know who else spends their salaries? College faculty! I'd be happy to personally tutor any member of Congress who can't grasp this.)

Although the cc model is built on the assumption of low upfront cost to students, the gravitational pull of several different factors is pushing us towards the high tuition/high aid model common in the rest of higher ed. Apparently, aid to colleges directly is considered discretionary, but increased financial aid to students is considered stimulative and humane. We're just responding to the environment.

My fearless prediction: this Fall, cc's across the country will shatter records in percentage terms with increases in tuition and fees. Between record enrollments and drastic subsidy cuts, it's nearly inevitable. The deterrent effect of possible state cuts is vitiated when state cuts are inevitable anyway. If we raise student costs, we get our aid cut. If we don't, we still get our aid cut. Move the money from operating subsidies to financial aid, and we'll adjust accordingly. We'll endure the usual ignorant blather about out-of-control tuition by people who get mad at Harvard and take it out on us, but at the end of the day, we're just playing by the rules.

He who pays the piper calls the tune. If you want us to do a different dance, pay the piper, and call a different tune.