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Higher-ed costs debate ignores staggering fiscal realities

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Public higher education financing is unsustainable as currently configured. This conclusion was reached by two important groups over the past two years.

The National Association of State Budget Officers and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association both report the current fiscal crunch for public colleges and universities will not go away.

Indiana, like all other states, claims more students need certification or degrees beyond high school. However, states are hard pressed to increase funding for postsecondary institutions from community colleges to research-based universities.

Part of this pressure comes from the concurrent demands for increased state spending for Medicaid, prisons and other public services. Another part is rooted in the reluctance of legislators and voters to raise taxes.

Increased enrollment, with little growth (if any) in state support, leads to higher tuition for students and their families. Parents and students then complain about the high sticker prices on education. To cover these expenses, students and families have borrowed large sums of money over the years.

Legislators and others then respond with demands for (a) cost containment and (b) better performance by schools. What does this mean?

Cost containment usually comes down to suggestions or demands that faculty pay, pensions and benefits be cut. In response, the institutions hire less costly instructors and move to online degrees serving anyone anywhere who will pay the required fee. No one argues upgrading athletics facilities should be postponed.

Better performance is measured by degree or certificate completion rates and the number of years to completion. Few people bother to question whether the content of the curriculum is being watered down.

One result of all this is an increase in the posturing and lobbying by colleges and universities for more funding while they profess allegiance to the goals of public officials. Thus, every public college and university forms an economic development committee to bring curriculum into line with poorly perceived skill needs of the private sector.

Hence, business people tell educators what they imagine employment requirements will be five and 10 years from yesterday. We also divert students from learning to be members of a civil society so they can be become pawns in the labor force.

There are solutions most of us don’t want to examine. One would be full privatization of job training. This means large corporations or trade associations assume responsibility for the postsecondary schooling of their labor force. It’s an old idea that could be revived.

Then companies would have to forecast their labor force requirements well in advance. They would have to identify future workers long before the investment in education (training) would pay off. That shifts more of the risk already present in education from students to their future employers.

Of course, the greatest increase in the benefits of education comes from a broad, rigorous high school curriculum combined with a universally higher completion rate at that level. But that’s not as appealing a topic as decrying the state of higher education.

Morton Marcus is an economist, writer and speaker who may be reached at

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