Cary McMullen: Holding the line on higher education costs

As the Florida Legislature gets underway this week, a couple of bills have been introduced with the laudable intent of keeping down the cost of higher education at state schools. One (SB 732) would provide savings for families who buy the state’s tuition prepayment plan, which would not directly affect the schools’ funding from the state. The other (SB 1148) would hit the schools’ pocketbooks by reducing the amount state universities can raise tuition — from 15 percent to a maximum of 6 percent.

The drive to keep tuition low has been championed for years now by Gov. Rick Scott, who says the only way to encourage more people to attend college is to keep tuition low. Opponents in and out of the public colleges and universities respond that per-student funding in Florida is already at or near the bottom among the 50 states, and there is a general worry that further reductions will cause the state to lose its best faculty to higher-paying schools in other states.

I don’t often agree with Scott, but he is correct that we ought to be making it easier, not harder, for families to send their children to college. On the other hand, it’s also true that for decades the Legislature has been slowly starving our public colleges, and that is a trend that cannot continue if the schools are to remain viable.

This dilemma has been caused in part by what we might call Big Education, a higher-educational industrial complex that has become centralized, bloated, self-entitled and greedy. Don’t get me wrong. There is a place for large, public research universities. I graduated from one in Texas, and my son earned two degrees from the University of Florida.

But rising higher-education costs are universal and out of control. Since the mid-1980s, the Consumer Price Index has risen about 115 percent. Average family income has done better, rising a little more than 140 percent. But in that same time, college costs have risen about 500 percent, according to a recent article in Forbes.

There are a lot of reasons for that, and it’s undeniable that growing demand for higher education has pushed up the cost. But there is no set of factors – not health-care costs, not underfunding by the states, not fat salaries commanded by superstar faculty members and administrators – that can account for that kind of obscene increase. The only conclusion is that Big Education got away with this kind of piggy-bank thievery simply because they could.

Florida administrations and the Legislature, like their counterparts across the country, bear their share of the blame for this mess. According to the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, in 1980 states provided 46 percent of the operating support for public colleges and universities. By 2005, that amount had fallen to 27 percent. That forced the schools to depend more on tuition, and during the same period tuition as a source of revenue increased from 13 percent to 18 percent.

Facing the insatiable cravings of Big Education, lawmakers in Florida and elsewhere shifted the burden of funding higher education to students and their families. Stopping this merry-go-round is hard because everybody blames everybody else, but stop it will, because sooner or later people are going to be unable or unwilling to pay. Maybe Scott is right that you have to start somewhere, and tuition is the place to start.

It’s time for lawmakers and Big Education to dismantle the merry-go-round. Colleges should stop assuming they can charge whatever they want, hold the line on costs, divert resources from administration to instructional faculty and concentrate on their core mission of undergraduate education. Scott and the Legislature might consider some regulations to help this along, but if they’re serious about creating a well-educated workforce, they’ll pony up the money to sustain the colleges so they don’t impoverish the families whose sons and daughters they’re educating.

Cary McMullen is writer and editor who lives in Lakeland, Fla. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Guest Author


Florida Politics is a statewide, new media platform covering campaigns, elections, government, policy, and lobbying in Florida. This platform and all of its content are owned by Extensive Enterprises Media.

Publisher: Peter Schorsch @PeterSchorschFL

Contributors & reporters: Phil Ammann, Drew Dixon, Roseanne Dunkelberger, A.G. Gancarski, Anne Geggis, Ryan Nicol, Jacob Ogles, Cole Pepper, Gray Rohrer, Jesse Scheckner, Christine Sexton, Drew Wilson, and Mike Wright.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @PeterSchorschFL
Phone: (727) 642-3162
Address: 204 37th Avenue North #182
St. Petersburg, Florida 33704