Why President Obama Can’t Lower Tuition

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National
Convention last night, President Obama promised that he would “work with
colleges and universities” to slow the steady rise in tuition we have experienced,
cutting the rate of increase in half. Inside Higher Ed has the
story
.

Naturally, the president’s statement drew applause from the
Democratic faithful, but is there the slightest reason to think that Obama can
slow the rise in tuition any more than King Canute could roll back the tide? I
think not.

First, the executive branch of the federal government has no
constitutional authority over higher education. The president can “jaw-bone”
college leaders, imploring them not to increase tuition, just as President
Kennedy pleaded with steel executives not to raise prices in 1962, but he can’t
command either private college officials or state university leaders to keep
tuition at any level.

Second, there are reasons
why tuition has been increasing and it’s hard to see how President Obama is
going to change the underlying reality. He continues to encourage more young
people to go to college and has facilitated that by getting Congress to
increase Pell grant amounts.  More
students with more money to spend – that’s a perfect recipe for college
officials to increase their revenues. Why wouldn’t they take advantage of the
situation, just because the president made a speech?

Third, it’s possible that Obama might resort to asking
Congress to enact some kind of price control over higher education, threatening
to take away federal dollars unless the schools keep their price increases down
to “reasonable” levels. The Republicans threatened to do that back in the Bush
years, but the bill never went anywhere, and for good reason. Price controls
are blunt, clumsy instruments that are easy to evade.

Finally, merely halving the rate of increase in college
costs, assuming that could be done, wouldn’t be much of a victory. If indeed
college and university administrators felt pressured to cut costs, there is
little reason to think that they would start with the most needless of budget
items. In California, for instance, where the state’s budgetary woes have
required cuts in university budgets, the sacred cows of “diversity”–academic
programs and administrative offices – have been spared.

Lower tuition sounds good, but what Americans should want
from higher education is increasing value. We’ll only get that through more
competition.

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George Leef

George Leef is Director of Research for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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