Public university students frustrated about burgeoning debt and steadily rising tuition prices often direct their anger at campus leaders, agitating about bloated administrative spending or salaries or misguided cuts in services.
A new campaign by the organization known as Young Invincibles suggests that they're "complaining about the wrong people," says Tom Allison, the group's policy and research manager. With the release Thursday of report cards gauging each state's investment in higher education, Young Invincibles' Student Impact Project essentially asserts that for public institutions, at least, blame for rising tuitions falls overwhelmingly on legislators and governors, not presidents and trustees.
That's a case that many college leaders have been making for some time, but when they say it, it comes across as self-interested and defensive.
But in judging states on a series of criteria that reflect state budget support for public institutions -- such things as changes in state spending per student, the proportion of the total cost of public college education covered by the state, in addition to tuition levels -- a leading advocacy group for young adults is telling its constituents the same thing, its leaders say.
"There's plenty of blame to go around, and institutions certainly need to be mindful of how they spend their money," Allison said. "But while many students don't necessarily see it, the decisions they're upset about are mostly being made by the state legislators. You can get mad at your institution for spending too much, and there are things the federal government could do to reduce debt. But we see debt as a symptom of a disease, and that disease is state disinvestment."
Under the Young Invincibles analysis, 11 states received four or more F grades on the five possible measures, and under its complex methodology, which assesses states not only on their relative levels of support but on the trend lines up or down, only 14 states received an overall grade of B- or better.
The goal: to pressure state leaders to reverse the disinvestment. "State legislators should act immediately to reprioritize higher education and make investment decisions that increase access to higher education, enhance financial security for this generation, and ultimately grow state economies,” said Aaron Smith, executive director of Young Invincibles.
That is roughly the same argument that public college leaders have been making, with mixed results, in recent years. But advocates for public colleges said they welcomed the reinforcements from another direction.
George P. Pernsteiner, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers association, said he was "gratified that Young Invincibles took a broader look at costs and state support than is usually considered."
"It's great that an organization representing students is out there with a pretty ambitious project and initiative to generate greater visibility about the connection between state funding and college affordability," added Daniel Hurley, associate vice president for government relations and state policy at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
"And it's a lot more powerful than the self-interest of the college lobby."