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The college tuition racket

| Saturday, March 9, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Lisa Snell is education director at the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles libertarian think tank. She spoke to the Trib regarding the financial model for America's higher education system that many people consider broken.

Q: There's increasing sentiment that skyrocketing tuition costs have contributed to the formation of a higher-education bubble similar to the housing bubble of several years ago. What role has government played in accelerating those tuition costs?

A: I would say government is 100 percent responsible. The College Board, which runs the SAT, puts out a college trends and pricing report every year (and) one of the things they have reported is that students and families in the last decade are in some ways cushioned from the (tuition) sticker shock. So even though we talk a lot about cost to parents (and students), in many cases, in real dollars, kids and parents actually pay less because they have so many more (federal and state) subsidies than they did in the past. In some ways, that shelters your direct consumer from the real cost of the rise in tuition and it's a circular thing — the more subsidies there are, the more the price goes up. Every year, the federal government makes a larger investment that then allows universities to invest in more buildings, more administration, more higher-priced items that don't necessarily add (educational) value.

Q: What could happen to break the cycle of higher subsidies, higher tuition?

A: The availability of government resources is the big question. We're having these national conversations about the multitrillion-dollar debts and government spending having its limits, and certainly higher education is a huge part of that. With the sequester, you have all kinds of statements about the Draconian cuts to public universities, even though we know they have huge administration costs and they could cut a lot (of things) before they ever reach faculty members. (But) the first thing (colleges) say is that they are going to have to raise tuition and cut classes rather than saying they will cut 10 administrators.

Q: How do you see that availability of those government resources playing out in the short term?

A: From the commitments at the state and federal level, it doesn't look like in the next couple of years that we are going to see dramatic shifts in the amount of subsidies to higher education.

Q: To stay competitive, many colleges and universities have constructed these palatial residential facilities and begun offering amenities like state-of-the-art health and fitness centers and fine-dining options. In the long term, do you see the era of the luxurious college experience coming to an end?

A: I think 20 years down the line, universities are going to look completely different than they do now, and students and faculty are going to interact differently. We've seen a trend (toward) people working from home and I would imagine the same thing will happen with universities — you won't have to be at MIT to go to MIT.

People are starting to question whether they want to send their kids to a country club for four years. They're starting to question whether they do get some value in terms of return on their investment.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com).

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