Publication - Technician (
Publication Status - Published, 09/12/05

Could Higher Tuition Actually Be a Better Deal? (Part I)
Posted: 09.12.05
T. Greg Doucette

"OMGnomoretuition" is the one consistent shibboleth of a Student Government official. A candidate has to swear by "OMGnomoretuition" to get elected, has to give an oath to "OMGnomoretuition" before taking office and has to participate in assorted pagan rites in the name of "OMGnomoretuition," such as the ritual sacrifice of a maiden to the Tuition Gods on the third Wednesday after the second Monday in January (disclaimer: Dan Rather assures me his source for that last one is 100% authentic).

With the singular focus of student leadership on "OMGnomoretuition," the University's backers in favor of higher tuition invariably trot out tired irrelevancies like faculty retention rates to bolster their case. "Tired" because there are newspaper archives documenting the overuse of this anti-poaching justification since the consolidated UNC system was created in 1971, "irrelevant" because there are always well-qualified professors to take the place of those hired away -- a truth evidenced by the claims that, after 24 years and dozens of tuition increases later, faculty retention is still a "problem."

Given this state of debate, the question of whether higher tuition might actually turn out to be a better deal never gets thoroughly considered. George Leef, director of the non-partisan Pope Center for Higher Education Policy located here in Raleigh, argued in an address to the Virginia Association of Scholars that "By keeping the cost of higher education artificially low for the great majority of students, we undoubtedly lure many away from the job market or vocational training." Detailing his view that college educations are being "oversold," Leef's argument asks obvious questions: If you know when graduating high school that you want to become an HVAC technician and start your own heating and cooling business, do you really need to spend four years in college getting an engineering degree? His position is certainly not politically correct in any sense, but it merits consideration given that some of these positions pay far better than those requiring a college degree. Leef's view also an unintended boost by the Raleigh News & Observer, when that newspaper recently ran an exposť on the return of apprenticeships to counteract the artificial lack of labor in, among other professions, the ventilation industry.

Others argue with stacks of data that the artificially low cost of tuition is essentially a sop to the rich. Given the vagaries of North Carolina's tax system and the huge chunk of the state budget devoured by education costs, poor and middle-class families across the state essentially subsidize the educations of children whose families are wealthy enough to finance it on their own. Iniquities such as these usually scream for correction in other contexts, producing such "ingenious" concepts as our overly progressive federal income tax. Yet with the University system it is never raised as an argument.

Most persuasive, however, is the concept of product quality and monopoly power. In very oversimplified terms, any company has a disincentive to improve the quality of its products (versus increasing its profits) to the extent that it is insulated from competition in the marketplace. For the UNC system, like any other public institution, this monopoly power manifests itself through artificially lowered tuition prices. Consider N.C. State's own comparisons to our peer institutions. We routinely rank near the bottom of most academic measures based on reports produced by the University. All other things being equal then, such that a prospective student would face a choice between choosing lower tuition at NCSU versus higher academic rankings at a peer institution, NCSU has a clear advantage. But if our tuition rates increase relative to our peers, that advantage evaporates and more students have a greater incentive to go with the higher rankings -- the better educational product. NCSU would then have to produce tangible improvements to its standings in order to keep classrooms full, ideally providing all of us with better educations and more valuable degrees.

Overall, the situation can be compared to wandering around in the forest. If you ever find yourself lost, closely examining a single tree can set you back on your correct path (just look for the moss). It will be important for the Administration to pay attention to single trees as they ponder the tuition increases we'll face next year, to provide them with a guide if they stray too far from the best path. But student leaders pretending the forest doesn't exist at all will get us nowhere if students genuinely want a more responsible and responsive university.

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