Tradition of cheap college tuition fades from US West
The West has long had a populist tradition of low-cost higher education. Today, however, this heritage is threatened by inflation, fiscal conservatism , declining enrollments, and the ad hoc tuition policies in effect at many Western dolleges and universities.Skip to next paragraph
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That is the message of a report issued recently by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), entitled "Tuition and Fees in Public Higher Education in the West."
With the highest proportion of public universities of any region in the United States, Western states have long subsidized higher education in the belief that this was in the best interests of democracy. Westerners have, in general, espoused a philosophy enunciated by American philosopher and educator John Dewey:
"Since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority, it must find a substitute in voluntary disposition and interest; these can be created only by education."
Yet, since the 1950s support in this region for publicly subsidized higher education has softened substantially. Student unrest in the 1960s led many conservative Westerners to see college campuses as centers of ultraliberal, even communist thought. This has led as increasing number of Western politicians to ask, with Ronald Reagan. "Why should we subsidize campus radicalism?"
This view has been strengthened by the fact that, over the past decade, tuition and fees have not kept up with the rising costs on campus. States have been picking up an increasing share of the burden. The spread between public and private college tuitions has increased two-to threefold.
Within the last few years, however, state legislatures have shown a new willingness to raise student tuitions by substantial amounts. This year's seniors in Alaska are paying 35 percent more than in their freshman year. In Arizona, tuition and fees are 37 percent higher than four years ago. On Washington State campuses tuitions may be raised 40 percent next year alone.
WICHE analysts see increasing tuitions as inevitable. "I think we'll see the spread between public colleges and universities here and in other regions narrowing. A college degree at a Western institution may still be a 'bargain' but it wonht be low cost in the sense we think of today," predicts Richard Jonsen, WICHE's deputy director.
What concerns Mr. Jonsen and his associates is the fact that these increaes are being done in an ad hoc or narrowly fiscal fashion. Typically, tuitions and fees are used to make up the difference between available state revenues and costs.
"We would like to see a 'rational' process that addresses the important issues involved," explains Norman Kaufman, a senior staff associate at the regional education organization.
For instance, a growing debate among Western educators involves the trade-offs between maintaining quality education and accessibility in a period of fiscal austerity. "Many educators argue for maintaining quality even if that means limiting access," says Paul Albright, WICHE's director of communications. "We're for quality education, but we think accessibility is extremely important as well."