Survey: Colleges are too focused on the bottom line

In the University of Connecticut student newspaper last week, columnist Jason Ortiz struck an increasingly familiar note of skepticism about higher education as he decried the growing burden of tuition hikes.

UConn should not “balance bloated budgets on the backs of working young people . . . ,” Ortiz wrote as university trustees were about to approve a 5.4 percent increase in tuition and fees. “Let’s stop running this university like a corporation and start running it like a community we can all be proud of.”

Ortiz, a senior from Norwich, echoed a sentiment that is growing across America, according to a nationwide survey released this month by Public Agenda.

In that survey, “Squeeze Play 2010,” only about one in three respondents said colleges are mainly focused on students. Sixty percent said colleges operate more like businesses and care more about the bottom line than “making sure students have a good educational experience.”

That is up from 55 percent of respondents a year ago and 52 percent two years ago, according to a series of surveys on public attitudes toward higher education, conducted by Public Agenda for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

According to Public Agenda, “these findings suggest that many Americans are becoming more skeptical about whether colleges and universities are doing all that they can to control costs and keep tuition affordable.”

In other findings, the survey reported:

  • More than half the respondents, 54 percent, said “colleges could spend less and still maintain a high quality of education.”
  • The number of people who thought a higher education is absolutely necessary rose sharply over the past decade, from 31 percent in 2000 to 55 percent in 2008 and 2009.
  • A growing propostion of 69 percent, say there are many qualified people who do not have access to higher education. That’s up from 47 percent in 2000 and 62 percent two years ago. Nevertheless, 90 percent said it is very likely or somewhat likely that their own children will attend college.

In Connecticut, as in many other states, the problem of growing costs is exacerbated by steep state budget deficits and a worsening fiscal climate. The state’s public colleges will get no increase in state support this year, and officials say the prospects for next year are bleak. At UConn, for example, officials warn that even with a similar tuition increase next year, the university could face a deficit of $20 million to $40 million.

At public universities across the nation, the share of state support for higher education has continued to decline for years in comparison to tuition revenue. The nationwide recession has intensified the pressure to raise tuition. Nowhere is the problem more serious than at the University of California, where tuition is rising by 32 percent next year.

When UConn trustees met last week, Ortiz was among a parade of students and faculty calling on the university to find a way to hold down costs without increasing class sizes, shutting down programs or otherwise sacrificing quality.

As UConn raised tuition, trustees also said they are seeking a consultant to conduct a financial review in an effort to hold down costs. UConn’s undergraduate tuition and fees will rise to $10,416 for state residents next fall. The total cost, including room and board, will reach $20,968, a 6 percent increase.

Part of the problem, said state Sen. Mary Ann Handley, D-Manchester, “is that our support in this state for public higher education is abysmal.” Nevertheless, as costs escalate and tuition rises, she said, “I certainly hear great dismay about the huge salaries for administrators and the high pensions.”

Some people also worry about “the overemphasis on sports and the money being spent there as opposed to graduate programs or undergraduate programs,” said Handley, a retired history teacher in the state community college system and co-chair of the legislature’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee.

“Is the money being well used?” she asked.

Finding answers won’t be easy, said the committee’s other co-chair, state Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury. She said the last of her own four children graduated from college last May, and the bills are coming due. “This has real-life implications for me… We refinanced our mortgage.”

In a recent interview, state Higher Education Commissioner Michael Meotti said higher education officials, legislators and the successor to retiring Gov. M. Jodi Rell next year should tackle the question of how to keep college affordable in spite of the worsening budget crisis.

He cited the example of Maryland, where educators and state officials gained national attention for a cost-cutting program that began several years ago and helped the University System of Maryland and Morgan State University freeze tuition for four years.

In spite of the growing concerns expressed in Connecticut and elsewhere, the authors of the Public Agenda report said the results of the latest survey “do not suggest that the public is ready to turn its back on higher education or dismiss its importance. Indeed, given the lack of jobs for young people, many may be thinking that college is a better alternative for their children than ever, despite its rising prices.”