While the rate of inflation has been held in check since the onset of the recession five years ago, it has run amuck in one important segment of the economy, higher education. It seems these costs are increasing even more rapidly than the need for a better educated citizenry.
We were reminded of this sad fact of American life earlier this month when a draft legislative report, comparing the cost of attending the University of Connecticut with the flagship universities in the other 49 states, found that UConn compares favorably, but only because Connecticut is wealthier than most states. It also found costs at UConn are increasing at four or five times that inflation rate.
"UConn's affordability is relatively favorable because its prices are viewed in the context of the state's higher income levels," the report concluded.
But State Sen. John Kissel, co-chair of the Program Review and Investigations Committee, suggested that if you take out lower Fairfield County, where the money is, you'll see an entirely different outcome. Sen. Kissel is from Enfield, on the northern border, far from the rich southwest corner.
The senator asked the writers of the report to thoroughly investigate why the cost of a college education has so grievously outstripped the rate of inflation. So far, they've determined competition has been a major source, causing dramatic increases in marketing and other administrative expenses.
UConn became an object of derision for out of whack administrative costs a couple of years ago when it was revealed the university's chief public safety officer was paid more than New York City's police commissioner. His successor was hired for $164,000 or $83,000 less than his predecessor's $247,000 salary, thanks, at least in part, to news reports on the pay of the top cop in rural Storrs and his counterpart on the island of Manhattan. As to advertising expenses, ask any parent of a high school senior about the slick, unsolicited ads that arrive regularly in the mail.
UConn President Susan Herbst, as is her duty, painted a rosier scenario to Sen. Kissel's committee when she asked if UConn is "accessible, affordable and a good value to students" and replied, "by every measure, the answer is a resounding yes."
However, one measure that comes to mind with a resounding "no"is a 15 percent increase in the university's tuition rate in the past three years while the inflation rate has been under 3 percent in the same period.
So, what's to be done beyond seemingly futile requests that the institutions of higher learning practice more discipline and fiscal restraint?
President Obama to wants tie higher education grants to the ability of the institution to control costs but so far, it has been met with the same enthusiasm by his congressional opponents as any of the president's ideas, regardless of merit. This one especially deserves more than knee-jerk opposition because it addresses the future prosperity of the nation, something we once believed was of concern to both parties.
In his last two State of the Union addresses, President Obama put the colleges on notice that if tuition doesn't stop rising faster than inflation, taxpayer financing would drop and in this year's address, he asked Congress to consider affordability before awarding federal aid. In August, he proposed rating colleges on specifics like tuition, graduation rates, student debt and earnings of graduates and the percentage of lower-income students at the college.
To say that the colleges have asked for these proposals is to understate their seeming indifference to ever increasing costs. The New York Times reported in August that the president's remedial action was "likely to cause some consternation among colleges."
That's a good start.