For States, the Higher Education Tuition Well Seems About to Run Dry

WASHINGTON — At least universities can raise tuition.

That has been the fiscal refrain of state legislatures for years, with Oregon an early and loud member of the chorus. It's something that's not true about, say, prisons, so when states get into money troubles, they tend to fund prisons and tell universities to raise their tuition.

Which is fine, if you expect to be building your future on prisons.

The United States has been falling steadily in international rankings of population with college degrees — it's now down to No. 16, which despite what the NCAA might say, is not a sweet 16. In Oregon, and a few other places, the generation in its 20s and 30s is actually less well educated than the generation before.

The Obama administration has been driving an effort to reverse the trend. Since 2009, both the size of Pell Grant scholarship amounts and the number of recipients has risen sharply, and the administration now proposes to increase the budget for work-study programs and loans. There are now 3 million more Americans in college than three years ago, although the increase also has something to do with an uninviting job market.

Now, the administration is taking on the at-least-they-can-raise-tuition argument, which has kept university doors open but given an entire generation a severe case of educational sticker shock — as well as loan balances that will keep their college memories green for years. President Barack Obama recently met with state university leaders and called for states to maintain their higher education funding levels and for universities to get more efficient in controlling their tuition costs.

"We're really calling on states to do more to keep up their end of the bargain," said Roberto Rodriguez, special assistant to the president for education policy, in an interview at the White House on Thursday. Moreover, the administration plans to do it in the only way — short of troops — the federal government can influence state governments: with money.

"This is the first time in the history of federal education support that the federal government directs aid to universities based on responsibility," added Mark Zuckerman, deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council. "We're willing to put a sizable amount of money on the line."

In the next fiscal year, that includes a $1 billion higher education Race to the Top grant competition, following K-12 and early education competitions. Grants will be based on system efficiency, controlling tuition levels and increasing graduation rates. To the administration, the goal is to move states to set priorities and strategies more like Maryland, which has considerably increased its graduation rates, and less like California, where corrections spending has shot well past higher ed spending and state college enrollment is actually declining.

As with everything else in Washington, the administration's drive to raise college levels is open to argument. Wednesday, in an 11-hour House Budget Committee hearing, the GOP majority members passed through a five-year budget outline likely to roll back funding for Pell grants and other support programs and endanger the expanded higher education tax credits. According to Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., a Budget Committee member, the majority argued that more federal support only encourages states to raise tuition — a position for which Rodriguez insists there is no evidence.

And there are concerns from the other direction.

"I think it's laudable as a goal, about sending a message to states," said brand-new Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., the member of Congress most recently in a state legislature. "But as a former state senator, it penalizes states that are hurting."

Or at least it reminds them of certain longer-range priorities.

"I've worked in three state legislatures," said Zuckerman. "State legislatures are highly responsive to the federal government in terms of financial decisions. If a state keeps talking cutting aid, and knows the federal government will respond by cutting aid, it will have an effect."

It will always be true, and legislators will always remember, that universities can always raise tuition.

But it turns out that the feds have some options as well.


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