Falling bricks and rising tuition

Double-digit inflation is a thing of the past in the United States; but you'd never know it to speak with a college student or his family. While the inflation rate was just 3.9 percent last year, the cost of college tuition was up approximately 13 percent at private universities. This year, the inflation rate is expected to decrease to just 2.6 percent, but tuition levels are increasing by more than 13 percent. And there is no end in sight to this discrepancy. In fact, education costs are themselves one of the leading components of inflation nowadays.

Students at many colleges, including the University of Pennsylvania, have been asking why their tuition must climb so, and they have been protesting - sometimes with great vigor - when the answer has not been forthcoming. Students and parents deserve an explanation for the phenomenon. In truth, higher education faces a difficult dilemma of balancing past and future.

Simply put, the nation's universities are in the process of falling apart - not from student revolt, not from the decline of academic standards, but from neglect of basic maintenance of what business people call ''plant and equipment.'' Together with the decline in the faculty's real income in the last 10 years, deteriorating research and educational facilities will continue to exert upward pressure on future tuition bills.

Remember that ancient lecture hall in which freshman classes were held? The wooden floor was worn, the pipes were exposed, and the ceiling leaked in a couple of spots. The sad truth is that that building is probably still in use, and probably far more dilapidated than you remember.

Ironically, the problem grew during the 1960s and early 1970s, a time of national economic expansion and even a boom time for higher education. But universities were emphasizing new, innovative academic programs - and new facilities - while ignoring their existing facilities and the mounting maintenance liabilities they were incurring. Now, it is time to pay our debt to the past.

How severe is the problem? At Penn, we are not building new structures to any extent, but we are confronted with $40 million to $50 million of critical renovations over the next five years - of student dormitories, academic buildings, recreation facilities, the athletic stadium, and the museum. Because the physical expansion of the 1960s and 1970s gave all construction projects - including renovations - a bad image in the eyes of some donors, we lack the contributions to meet all our needs. We probably will borrow funds for this purpose. We will of course also attempt to persuade potential donors that renovation is a wise course, not mindless expansion.

Although it will be a tough few years here at Penn, I expect we'll come through in good shape. But the problem is far more severe at many less fortunate institutions. Ten years ago there were more than enough students to go around. But with the last of the baby boom generation already having entered colleges, there is a growing shortage of students. Those colleges that cannot get their share will not be able to raise the funds to meet their physical plant needs. Already, some such schools have gone out of business; more will undoubtedly follow.

If college administrators of the 1960s lacked the crystal balls to foresee the present dilemma, they had good company. That shortsightedness affected so many aspects of American life, including many corporations which emphasized short-term profits over long-term investments in plant, equipment, and basic research. We are now paying for that choice in reduced productivity, economic growth, and ability to compete in foreign markets.

The nation at large committed the same sin of omission in overlooking the maintenance needs of highways, waterways, mass-transit systems, communications systems, and others. Today, the critical issues of rebuilding the nation's infrastructure are the subject of congressional legislation and the highest economic thought. The problems of higher education - of rebuilding our ''educational infrastructure'' if you will - are indeed a subset of those larger problems.

And so are the solutions. The government and corporate sectors are finally making the sacrifices needed to commit resources to restoring the public and private infrastructure, and those of us in higher education must do the same. We cannot and should not give up innovative educational programs, but we must have a better-targeted, shorter list of projects. We must preserve the social investments of the past while preparing for the future.

This will also mean a selective closing of facilities, programs, and sometimes schools. At Penn, two of our 14 schools - the schools of allied medical professions and the school of public and urban policy - have been closed because of financial difficulties. Such pruning is stressful of course, but a healthy sign of organizational decisiveness, and it has enabled us to concentrate both on renovating our campus and on new ventures - a new plant science institute for one, a new interdisciplinary program in language, culture, and international management, for another.

Higher education is beginning to confront courageously the challenge of matching physical plant and educational needs. The leaner system that emerges will be healthier, more stable, and better able to meet the nation's goals.

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