seal  Letter from the President

March 2004

A monthly letter from President Martin C. Jischke

Much of the discussion about higher education in recent months has centered on concern about the rising costs for students and their families. At a time when the importance of education – especially a university degree – is greater than it ever has been, many families are afraid that they will not be able to afford to send their children to college or that borrowing the money needed will overburden them with debt.

Concern about access to higher education has led legislators in the U. S. Congress and in the Indiana General Assembly, among others, to consider legislation that would limit tuition and fee increases by colleges and universities. This concern also motivated Gov. Joe Kernan to ask Indiana's higher education institutions to limit any increases for the next academic year to 4 percent, to hold public hearings on planned increases and to give ample notice to allow families time to prepare financially. The plans Purdue already had in motion concerning student fees matched the governor's request. The public hearing on a proposed 4 percent fee increase for in-state students is scheduled for April 8 at 4 p.m. on the West Lafayette campus.

Keeping the cost of a Purdue education within the financial reach of every qualified student who wants to attend is one of my highest priorities, but I believe it very important that the people of Indiana understand why tuition and fees increase with such regularity. I also want them to realize that price controls on universities are not the solution to this problem.

The formula for funding public higher education was created in the 19th century when the federal and state governments recognized that increasing the number of people with college degrees could bring enormous social and economic benefits. Until then, only a privileged few could expect to go to college because it was so expensive. When states established public universities, they did not reduce the real cost of education. They agreed to underwrite a share of that cost in order to allow families to afford something that was too expensive for most of them to bear.

The Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 gave a tremendous boost to this concept and led to the founding of Purdue and other great state universities. The money that states invested in higher education was returned many times over in increased human productivity and scientific advances that came out of these institutions. In the mid-20th century, the passage of the G.I. Bill made it possible for returning veterans of World War II to go to college at minimal financial cost. Huge numbers of them seized the opportunity, and they became the most productive generation the country had ever seen.

Again, the cost of educating the greatest generation was not low, but the financial burden on students was eased by government funding because visionary leaders recognized the benefits to the nation. They saw that college students and their families are not the only beneficiaries of college education. Everybody benefits.

The American higher education system today is diverse and highly effective. It is recognized universally as the best in the world, but it is in danger because public support has not kept up with rising costs. This is true at the federal level and in most states. Faced with ever-increasing demands to pay for health care, corrections, deteriorating infrastructure and other necessities, states have allocated lower percentages of their budgets to education. During periods of slow economic growth, this trend is aggravated by declining tax revenue.

Meanwhile, the cost of running a university keeps going up. This is because universities are people-intensive and technology-intensive. To attract and retain the highly skilled people universities need, they must pay competitive salaries. Increases in the costs of health care benefits and technology upgrades affect universities more than most enterprises. Despite advances in the technology that supports teaching, putting professors and students face-to-face in a classroom or laboratory remains the most effective learning arrangement, and it is the one students want and deserve.

When universities make the decision to raise fees, they do so in order to meet these increasing costs and to preserve quality. When I came to Purdue less than four years ago, I found an institution that was the most efficiently run I had ever seen. But I soon realized that it could not squeeze its budget any tighter without damaging the quality of education.

If public support for universities declines – as it has in America in recent decades – and universities are prevented from recovering losses through fees, a disastrous decline in quality will follow because to save money, universities must use fewer full-time professors, increase class sizes, defer maintenance on buildings, eliminate programs and use outdated equipment. America needs great public universities now more than ever, and great universities have never been cheap.

In the long run, the investment in higher education pays off in more productive people, more prosperous businesses, lower social services costs and higher revenues for governments. Indiana and the rest of America need to find ways to make a new commitment to that investment in order to give every qualified student the chance to succeed in a knowledge-intensive world.