Friday, April 19, 2013

It's Good to Be an Education Optimist

Once in awhile people ask me how I can continue to call myself an education optimist when the "new normal" is so grim.  They ask, "why do you continue tilting at windmills instead of being pragmatic and accepting the situation?"

The answer is simple: acceptance is unnecessary and defeat is not an option.  I challenge the status quo for the sake of students.

Today, I want to say Take that, windmill!

The University of Wisconsin System just ceded to the demands of students across the State and agreed to cap a tuition increase at no more than 2% for the coming year and eliminate the waiting list for the Wisconsin Higher Education Grant.  This is a stunning reversal, as President Kevin Reilly had been lobbying against students, insisting that no cap was necessary.

What happened?  Well, as I have long insisted, the issue is not entirely about a lack of state funding being provided to higher education but how administrators are spending it.  When the incentives for administrators cause they to advance the interests of institutions over the needs of students, accountability measures are required to prevent that.  UW System just got called out, as an audit just revealed that a $404 million balance from tuition payments in 2011-2012 was leftover, unspent, while tuition was hiked by 5.5%.  SERIOUSLY??? Those cash reserves were being held for "specific planned future activities," according to the System.  Sorry Charlie, no way. That is something you do with appropriations, not tuition.  If you aim to help future students and promote stability, that's a public good, and should be on the public dime. This is an outgrowth of the same mindset that's diminished tuition and pushed students into debt-- the same old public / private benefits nonsense. Honestly, the students should demand NO increase and hold firm on doing it for 2 or more years!

So, here we are-- they said it couldn't be done-- the net price of attending UW System schools will likely stay flat or decline over the next year.  HURRAH!

Second, Minnesota legislators took a major step yesterday towards a tuition cap of their own, as the Senate voted to increase spending on higher education by $263 million in exchange for institutional performance accountability and a freeze on tuition increases at the state's universities.  This is remarkable-- using appropriations to drive down the costs of a college education on behalf of the people of one's state. Gee, whoever thought of that!

So folks, the strategy works. Get out there and insist on budgetary transparency and accountability for our institutions of higher education and simultaneously demand that legislators do whatever they can to drive down tuition.  This is the most effective strategy to reducing student debt in the near term.  We can do it!