The State of College Affordability

In his State of the Union address, President Obama elevated the issue of the rising costs of higher education to a new level – a step that, in my view, was long overdue. America can certainly benefit from comprehensive and inclusive discussions of the critical social, economic, and public policy issues surrounding access to, and affordability of, higher education. Students, their families, colleges and universities, the federal and state governments, communities, businesses – all should be involved because everyone has a stake in the outcome. Indeed, one can argue that the President was responding to the growing popular demand, exemplified by elements of the Occupy Movement, for urgent attention to the questions of access and affordability.

The problem has been widely recognized: for well over a decade. The costs of higher education have been steadily rising, and at a rate that exceeds the consumer price index as a measure of inflation. For public colleges and universities, the underlying reason (as I have pointed out previously) is the systematic disinvestment in higher education by state governments. The behavior of state governments in this regard is not fundamentally irrational: in the face of ever increasing costs for such things as mandated entitlements, health care, public safety, corrections, and pensions, funding for higher education was increasingly viewed as discretionary. After all, if colleges and universities needed funds beyond those provided by the state, they could always raise tuition. And they did.

For some time this strategy worked acceptably well because in many states public higher education was inexpensive. But after several years of budget reductions and concomitant tuition increases, this is no longer the case for many students and families. Here at the University of Rhode Island two recent events powerfully highlighted the situation. The first was the testimony presented by students, alumni, and faculty at a hearing on campus by the Special House Commission to Study Public Higher Education Affordability and Accessibility in Rhode Island, followed by the Occupy URI forum.

It is encouraging for us in Rhode Island that the multiple issues associated with the cost of public higher education are gaining increased attention. Crafting solutions will not be easy or simple. There are several other, well recognized, problems facing our state that also require urgent attention. However, most of the problems we face, including access and affordability of higher education, could be addressed far more readily if additional resources were available. I believe that the best and most sustainable path to increasing our resources is to grow the economy. This growth must happen sooner than later, it must be substantial, and it must be based on innovation. Discovery, technology transfer, entrepreneurship, and a highly prepared workforce are all essential to building a competitive 21st century economy. These are all things at which URI can excel. Consequently, access to affordable, excellent public higher education is a critical component of constructing solutions to the many challenges facing our state, and our nation.