A report issued Monday, “University Tuition, Consumer Choice and College Affordability,” called for a change in the public discussion about college costs -- both what it costs to run public universities and for students and their families to attend them. The report was released by the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges and focuses on public research universities.
How does the situation look elsewhere in public higher education? James H. McCormick, chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, agreed to respond to questions from his perspective in a system of regional state universities and community colleges.
Q: At a state system with teaching-oriented universities and community colleges, how does the affordability issue look? Do you see a crisis in affordability, or think that the colleges are more affordable than perhaps people realize?
A: Right now, tuition at our state colleges and universities is still more affordable than many people realize. Tuition averages about $4,500 a year at our 25 two-year colleges and $6,000 a year at our seven universities. Perhaps the better question is: Affordable for whom? In our state, we are reaching out more aggressively to underrepresented groups; we have growing numbers of immigrants, many of whom are low income and the first in their families to attend college. Often, these groups are least able to afford tuition even at current levels. The state will have to draw heavily on these populations for our future workforce. Already, we have worker shortages in some important industries, such as health care.
Q: Do you believe your state views college as a consumer good or a public investment? If the former, is that a problem?
A: In Minnesota, higher education is viewed as a consumer good, a public investment and important to the common good. In recent years, however, state appropriations have dropped from covering 67 percent of the cost of educating a student to the current ratio, which is about 50 percent. We reinforce the public investment idea as often as possible. We also hired a respected economist to conduct an economic impact study that showed for every $1 in net state appropriations, our colleges and universities return $10.87 to the state’s economy. Traditionally, Minnesota has ranked high in college attainment. I believe there is support in the business community for that high ranking to continue.
Q: The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system is talking about significantly increasing the share of instruction to be offered online. How could that relate to budget for the system -- and affordability for individual students?
A: Online courses offer a lot of benefits, including savings in transportation and time, for students. Salaries and course development, on the other hand, are no less costly for online instruction, so there are no particular savings. Many students who attend our colleges and universities also take an online course or two, so there isn’t likely to be much savings in building operations, either. Thus, tuition is not likely to be affected significantly, if at all, by the growth of online learning.
Q: The report suggests that colleges have done relatively little in exploring new modes of instruction (such as online education) that would reduce costs. Do you see significant changes in the works in Minnesota?
A: Minnesota has been a leader in exploring online education, and the state colleges and universities system is committed to increasing enrollment in online programs. In the last academic year, 9.2 percent of all registered credits at the 32 state colleges and universities were through online courses. About 66,000 students, or 26 percent of the system’s students who took credit courses last year, were enrolled in at least one online course.
Q: What would be most helpful on affordability from the state and federal governments?
A: The best case scenario would be for the state to allocate the system’s full appropriation request. That would enable us to hold tuition increases to no more than 2 percent for the colleges and 3 percent for the state universities during each year of the next biennium. The state also could adjust the state grant formula that now puts working part-time students at a disadvantage. These students are less likely to receive a state grant, according to a study by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. Often, they drop out. At the federal level, full funding of the authorized level for Pell Grants would improve affordability. At the least, students should be assured access to student loans.