Penn State’s recent decision to hold the line on tuition is a good start on addressing problems with higher education, but U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said he wants to see more.
In a speech at the University of Maryland Baltimore County on Monday, Duncan laid out the need to make a college education more than just “a luxury for the privileged few.”
Afterward, he addressed the media in a teleconference where he put emphasis on the shared duty to make that happen.
“Institutions need to be held accountable. So do states and accreditors,” Duncan said.
According to government statistics, tuition at four-year colleges has more than doubled over the past 30 years, even including an adjustment for inflation. For example, a 2012 graduate left school with a bachelor’s degree and approximately $27,000 in debt, more than twice what a 1992 graduate owed.
Duncan said the federal government is doing what it can. Under the Obama administration, more than $50 billion in student aid increases have been enacted, as well as more than $12 billion in tax benefits, but Duncan said that was not enough.
“That’s just one part of the battle,” he said, pointing toward the idea of debt-free degrees — a college education that takes students out of school and puts them to work without a crushing loan load to repay at the start of a career.
If that sounds familiar in Happy Valley, it is because it sounds a lot like Penn State President Eric Barron’s push for access and affordability over the past year. Barron has repeatedly pushed strategies to help Pennsylvania students make their way through college with as little debt as possible, including keeping fees down and making sure students graduate in four years rather than five or six.
“The most expensive tuition increase is an extra year,” he has said more than once, most recently at the Penn State trustees meeting where he unexpectedly unveiled a plan to freeze in-state tuition for the first time in 49 years, just one day after announcing he would attempt the lowest increase in decades.
Duncan had a similar message: that the worst kind of student loan debt is the kind that doesn’t come with a degree.
“Today, more than half of students that start college never graduate,” he said. “Students that take out loans but don’t graduate are more likely to default.”
Duncan pushed for universities, states and other stakeholders to join the federal government in prioritizing education. That call comes as Pennsylvania heads into its fourth week without a budget while the General Assembly and Gov. Tom Wolf remain at an impasse over issues including education. Wolf’s budget has increases for both public education and higher education, including a $49 million increase for Penn State.
“We are thankful for everything the state is doing to make higher education a priority, and we ourselves are taking some extraordinary measures to keep a Penn State education affordable,” said Penn State Provost Nick Jones. “The move to have zero tuition increase for Pennsylvania residents this year means that we are now reconfiguring our unit budgets to recover up to $17 million to address the funding gap, having already identified $34.4 million in savings in this new budget cycle. While this will mean that some initiatives cannot be accomplished this year as we had hoped, it also means that our Pennsylvania students and their families can enjoy a break from rising tuition costs.”
“States must stop cutting resources for higher education,” Duncan said. “State disinvestment is a primary driver in rising tuition.”
Barron has said that, too. When Penn State is castigated for having the second highest tuition in the Big Ten, just behind private school Northwestern, he says that measuring the university against other public schools that receive more support isn’t fair. Minnesota’s tuition is about $5,000 less than Penn State’s, but the Gopher State kicks in a subsidy of more than $4,000 per student. Pennsylvania’s 2014 appropriation of $214.1 million broke out to about $2,577 per Penn State student.
Duncan and his undersecretary for education, Ted Mitchell, lauded Penn State’s decision to freeze tuition, calling it a “profile in courage and leadership.”
However Duncan was adamant that states have to invest in students at the same time.
“It’s going to take real leadership, real strategy and real courage at the state level to make a huge difference,” he said. “We need to take concrete action to make a difference in the lives of young people.”