EDITORIAL: U.S. Colleges Have To Make Tuition Add Up

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It was unquestionably a lecture designed to please its audience: President Barack Obama telling students at the University of Michigan that “We are putting colleges on notice. You can’t assume that you’ll just jack up tuition every single year.”

But appealing to your audience doesn’t make the underlying lesson any less necessary. Because it’s clear — especially in light of the nation’s tough economic recovery and poor world education rankings — that the university system has evolved into one that is economically unsustainable while failing to deliver sufficient value for the investment.

Instead, it is reliant on federal grants as well as loans that are handed out based on students’ degree wants, with no regard for what that degree will deliver as far as earning potential, and with minimal paybacks that allow for total loan forgiveness in 20 years when the economic value of the degree doesn’t measure up to its cost.

And in New Mexico, it also is reliant on a system of bridge and lottery scholarships that allow the state’s 25 universities/colleges/junior colleges to routinely bump up tuition with minimal fallout because every New Mexico high school graduate with a 2.5 GPA can get nine semesters paid for by somebody else.

So it’s fair for those at the back of the room to raise a hand and ask, if all that free money hadn’t been flowing in, would tuition and fees at public colleges have gone up 8.3 percent this year and, with room and board, now exceed $17,000 a year?

Obama told cheering students last week that if universities “can’t stop tuition from going up, then the funding (they) get from taxpayers each year will go down.” And while the funding he’s talking about is a small piece of the pie — the $3 billion known as campus-based aid that flows through administrators, not the more than $140 billion in federal grants and loans that goes directly to students — college and university leaders need to take this lesson to heart.

The United States ranks 12th in the world when it comes to college graduation rates; only 42 percent of adults 25 to 34 have college degrees. In New Mexico, that sad statistic drops to only 28 percent of young adults. Those numbers aren’t going to fuel goodpaying jobs, much less power an economic recovery.

So it’s heartening that unlike their counterparts elsewhere, who reacted with immediate whining, University of New Mexico President David Schmidly and New Mexico State University President Barbara Couture have endorsed Obama’s plan, saying that steering additional low-interest loans to schools that do well and keep tuition in check should in turn improve graduation rates here by making college more affordable to working students.

Education is the key to competitiveness in the new global economy. Our colleges and universities must deliver sufficient value for the dollars students, parents and taxpayers invest in them.

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