Families of students enrolled in both public and private colleges and universities expect the cost of higher education to increase each year. Their reasoning is sound. The price of everything else -- food, shelter, medical care, etc. -- rises annually so it would be unreasonable to assume that the cost to attend college would remain static. What's troublesome, though, is the pace and the consistency at which the price of a year at a college or university rises. For a long time now, annual cost increases for higher education have outstripped inflation.
There's likely little relief in sight for students who will attend Tennessee's public universities and community colleges next fall. State higher education officials recommended tuition increases of as much as 3 percent for community colleges and up to 6 percent for universities at budget hearings in Nashville on Tuesday.
Those are recommendations, to be sure, and not a certainty, but it does suggest that those who attend the state's colleges and universities will pay more next year. The only uncertainty is how much more they will pay.
Whatever the increase, it is likely to outpace inflation, which is currently running at about 2 percent annually. Tuition hikes aren't the only college-related expense to rise. Higher prices for room and board inevitably accompany tuition increases. Last year, for example, with inflation at less than 3 percent, college tuition across the country on average rose about 4.8 percent -- the lowest increase in several years -- but that was accompanied by a 3.7 increase in the average price of campus meal and lodging plans. That's a pattern, unfortunately, that is likely to continue.
The rising price of higher education -- a necessity these days for a job and career that will provide salary and benefits to support a middle-class lifestyle -- is a growing burden for parents who understand the value of higher education and top-flight technical training and who strive to provide it for their offspring. The problem, of course, is that tuition hikes that outstrip inflation and wage and salary increases increasingly put the cost of higher education beyond the means of many students.
Elected and public education officials understand the pressures that rising higher education costs place on families. They know that every increase directly affects family budgets in both the short- and long-term. They know, too, that increases can add to the burden of student loans, many of which accompany students for years, even decades, after they graduate. Still, the need to raise tuition is difficult to escape.
State colleges and universities, like their private counterparts, must pay competitive salaries to attract gifted teachers. Budgeting for health care costs is sometimes an exercise in frustration. Costs to maintain and expand physical and technical infrastructure constantly increase but must be met if campus and system are to remain competitive with peer institutions and to meet the sometimes unrealistic expectations and demands of alumni.
There is, in short, no painless way to ameliorate the pernicious issue of increasing costs associated with obtaining and providing a higher education. Individuals, institutions and government obviously will have to work cooperatively to build a a sound framework that can support a system in which a reasonably priced higher education is made available to the largest possible number of the state's qualified students.
Parents will have to tighten their belts and pay a fair share of higher education costs. Some students may have to take fewer classes, work at part-time jobs and take an extra year or two to graduate. Alumni and others with deep pockets can play important roles in making a college education affordable, too. The main responsibility to provide a good education at a fair price to Tennessee students, however, remains with the state and those who oversee its higher education programs.There's little other choice.
The growing powerlessness of hard-working U.S. families to meet the continuously multiplying cost of higher education is a blot on a nation that correctly views education as a universal right. The large number of families forced to take on debt and the increasing number of students forced to work part- or full-time, to take on long-term loans or to delay or even defer going to college because of the cost are harmful both to individuals and the national interest.
Whatever the final tuition increase at Tennessee's colleges and universities next year -- remember, Tuesday's numbers were recommendations that may or may not become fact -- the state's obligation to its students is firm. If must make educational opportunity available to all who qualify at a cost that is manageable to the average family, If it does not, the state's economic growth and the civic and social growth of its residents will be irreparably harmed.