5 Reasons Obama’s College Tuition Policy Sucks

5 Reasons Obama’s College Tuition Policy Sucks


The President’s heart is in the right place, but his college policy sucks.

In last week’s State of the Union address, President Obama shocked many Americans with his statement that funding from taxpayers to America’s colleges and universities would decrease if those schools could not figure out a way to rein in increasing tuition rates.

President Obama’s intentions are honorable. Like most of his domestic legislation, the intent is to lower costs and increase accessibility. In a world where a college degree means an additional million dollars in career earnings, Obama’s heart is in the right place. Unfortunately, his proposals are not needed and have unfortunate similarities with Governor Rick Perry’s poor attempts at higher education reform in Texas.

Here are five reasons this is a poor proposal.

First, Americans have lost the concept of the public good. Once upon a time, tuition was lower because state governments chipped in more aid because it was quite clear that an educated citizenry made everyone better off. Americans, especially state legislators, no longer seem to understand this, and as a result, there is less support for this public good. If states contributed more resources then universities could rein in tuition costs. Essentially, President Obama is absolving state legislators of their responsibility.

Second, each state has different funding mechanisms for higher education. Attempting a one-size carrot-and-stick reward and punishment system when there are fifty different systems does not work in this particular environment because there is no exact minimum that we expect of each state. Some states have several amazingly wonderful, public four-year comprehensive undergraduate and graduate research colleges. Some states have not one. As a result, the funding amounts and mechanisms differ widely in each state. Simply asking schools to control tuition is simplistic, especially given that in many cases individual campuses cannot unilaterally set their tuition.

Third, some schools specialize in liberal arts education, while others specialize in engineering, the hard sciences and agricultural education. These disciplines cost different amounts to effectively teach and conduct research in. Tuition at some schools must be higher and occasionally rise in order to keep up with technology and current trends because labs, technology, and research intensity varies from one school to the next.

Fourth, some schools teach more undergraduates than graduate students. Graduate student education is much more costly because the teacher-student ratio is considerably lower. And, predictably, the undergraduate-graduate student ratio differs from state to state.

Fifth, this approach of focusing on individual colleges and universities lets the federal government off the hook. Congress’s priority should be to restore Pell Grant funding and help make student loans more affordable, not less.

If corporate America, with its billions of unspent cash, wants to come to the rescue with strings-free cash aid, colleges and universities will listen. But until then, please, Mr. President, do not put any more handcuffs on America’s colleges and universities.

MARVIN KING received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of North Texas and is now an Associate Professor of Political Science with a joint appointment in the African American Studies Program at the University of Mississippi. He conducts research into how political institutions affect African American politics. Marvin is available for public speaking engagements and you can follow him on Twitter @kingpolitics


  1. # of comments. First, you are professor, and though I'm not stating that your occupation will automatically dictate ALL your views on this particular topic, it's important upfront to acknowledge your bias (and that you have a vested interest in making sure funds continue to flow to higher education). That said, despite some of the reasons you listed (like teaching sciences as opposed to liberal arts, or graduate students as opposed to undergraduate students), there is NO reason any school should cost $30,000-40,000 just to get your education. Tuition rates across universities (public and private) have soared, even accounting for inflation and fact of the matter is most ordinary Americans except the very rich with a trust fund or the very poor or minority students (who would be more inclined to get full scholarships) increasingly cannot afford the cost of college. A lot of this came to be because of the OPPOSITE of what you are saying: tuition rates have artificially increased because the federal government has increasingly made heaps of student loan money easily available to student borrowers (which though a noble enterprise, in fact the way I was able to afford school, ultimately, long term, drives tuition up).

    Lord knows I'm no supporter of Obama, though I do agree with him on his basic pt. about the cost of the university and think his intentions are noble. I have no idea, in theory, though how his plan would in practice pan out. The university's funding comes from 3 main sources: tuition dollars, govt. money and private contributions and endowments and it seems if you increase the 2nd, tuition dollars may actually in the short term increase to make up the deficit. However, in the long term, it may serve as a impetus to push the prices (esp. at state universities down). What is certain, however, is this is a tremendous problem and it makes it impossible for, say, the average undergrad who is unsure of their future to try courses out in college just for their potential or for the joy of an education as you also allude to at the beginning of your commentary.

  2. just read more specifics about the policy. Apparently a good part of it is just making loan money (like the Perkins Loans) more readily available to universities who strive to keep their costs down. I, for the life of me, can't understand why this is considered a bad idea. Though with everything out of control, it may be too little, too late.

  3. I'm with you, Marvin. I'm not a professor, but I do work in computational research support at a public university in Texas. The President was, I think, scoring some cheap election year points with this dig at universities. You cannot, I repeat, CANNOT, talk about universities raising tuition without talking about what has caused universities to raise tuition, namely that states have been slashing funding for public universities. Here in Texas, our incompetent part-time legislature and a Governor eager to impose his will on higher education have purposefully defunded public universities over the last decade. Everyone is rightfully upset about tuition increases, but the phrases "tuition increase," "tuition hike," or "raising tuition" shouldn't leave the President's mouth without being qualified with a phrase like "states burdening college students and families" so that everyone understands why tuition has skyrocketed.

  4. But Patrick, realistically, even though what your saying about states cutting public university funds is true and could be compounding the problem, the question remains are universities effectively budgeting the money they are given wisely or are they spending ridiculous amounts of money on frivolous pursuits, like building a brand new overextravagant gym facility or other projects? University budgeting and spending is almost as bad as that of the federal governments and I can guarantee you much of this spending does little overall to improve the quality of education (as the professor argues) but does a hell of lot to raise students' tuitions.

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  6. Believe me, KMBT, I will be one of the first and one of the loudest to say that public higher education can do better and SHOULD do better. Within the last ten years, my school has built both a new rec center/gym/wellness center and a new football stadium. Neither of these were paid for out of tuition, but rather paid for by levying new fees. My biggest complaint about most of the reform talk when it comes to higher education is that effective reform involves an effective Board of Regents and upper administration. One of the fastest ways you could impose some cost controls is to tie upper administration salary increases to salary increases for your entire staff. We have around 20 six figure salary administrators at my university. I can't tell you what most of them do nor could I point to anything discrete they produce. Their salaries could certainly be controlled, but they exist in a strata of jobs that are always the last to suffer when budgets are tightened. It's the same story you find in the private sector: the executives will pass on the belt-tightening to those of us who work for them but will tighten their own belts only as a last resort.

  7. "Americans have lost the concept of the public good. Once upon a time, tuition was lower because state governments chipped in more aid because… " This shows just how ignorant this writer is. At ONE time the States and The People paid ALL the cost. The federal gov't had NOTHING to do with it. These were the generations that did such things as WIN WW2.
    The is NO WHERE in the Constitution for the federal gov't to have ANYTHING to do with education.