Denver — 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.
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."
And Mr. Jonsen adds, "It's the education of the marginal student -- the minorities and educationally disadvantaged -- which benefits society the most." without an education, such students are the most likely to wind up in prison, on welfare, or unemployment . . . costing society substantially more than the price of an education, he points out.
Another growing problem, pinpointed in the WICHE report, is the different treatment of resident and out-of-state students. While states have continued to subsidize the education of residents, they have been raising out-of-state tuition dramatically. In Colorado and Washington, nonresidents now pay 10 to 15 percent more than the actual cost of education.
This treatment has both short-term effects and long-term implications. Western universities have traditionally relied heavily on Eastern students for a substantial percentage of their enrollment. This year Arizona campuses face a deficit. They have raised out-of-state tuition substantially. But this has been more than offset by a decline in out-of-state students applying. It is a problem which other Western campuses may also face in the near future, WICHE experts believe, one that is heightened by the fact that the number of college-age students in the nation will decline by 20 percent in the next decade.
In the longer term, WICHE's executive director, Phillip Sirotkin, worries about "increased parochialism" on the nation's campuses and educational "Balkanization of the nation and the erection of the equivalent of trade barriers."
This is of particular concern at the graduate level, he says. An adequate supply of professionally trained people is essential to an area's growth. This has traditionally been a national "market," with professionals getting their undergraduate degrees in one state, their graduate degrees in a second, and finding work in a third. The West, in particular, has benefited greatly from an influx of professionals with Eastern degrees, he adds.
To counteract this troubling trend, at least on a regional level, WICHE has promoted a cooperative program in graduate and professional education. Beginning next fall, institutions will charge students from other Western states resident tuition when they enroll in specified programs. This will facilitate exchange of students between Western states and allow universities to build upon their strengths. Programs of this sort have also been instituted in other parts of the country.
"The time when each campus can be everything for everybody is gone. This program will reduce duplication of effort. It will also allow specific institutions to become centers of excellence is particular fields which will help them attract the best faculty members and compete for federal money," explains Mr. Sirotkin.
Still, there is little doubt that higher education in the United States, in general, and the West, in particular, is facing a period of radical change. No one is quite sure what the outcome will be.