Colleges Mismanage Tuition Like Trump Mismanages Coronavirus

“As you see, it’s a beautiful day, the beaches are open, and people are having a wonderful time.”
- Larry Vaughn, Mayor of Amity

In the film Jaws, the mayor of Amity disregarded warnings of shark attacks in order to keep the beaches open for the 4th of July holiday. “Amity is a summer town,” said Mayor Vaughn. “We need summer dollars. Now if the people can’t swim here, they’ll be glad to swim at the beaches of Cape Cod, the Hamptons…” Come on in, he beckoned. The water’s fine. Well, we all know how that turned out.

In the what-feels-like-a-film Coronavirus, the modern day Mayor Vaughn – President Trump – has attempted a similar flim flam: the virus will disappear as the weather warms; a vaccine will be available soon; anyone who wants to be tested can be tested. And in a remark that should go down in history as Trump’s “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” moment (President George W. Bush’s wrongheaded praise of FEMA Administrator Michael Brown’s mishandling of Hurricane Katrina), Trump said he didn’t want to offload suffering cruise ship passengers because it would make “the numbers [of diagnosed U.S. cases] double.” Trump’s confidence game is about the stock market, the broader economy (but primarily the stock market), and the November election that will determine if he’s America’s first one-term President in nearly 30 years. Well, this week the market played Jaws to Trump’s Mayor Vaughn; the water’s not fine.

You know where else we need better leadership? Higher education, where we’re facing an unprecedented crisis of affordability. But when institutions set tuition for the next academic year, the focus in these announcements is invariably the percentage increase in tuition rather than the actual number. In so doing, America’s colleges and universities are running a similar 3-card Monte game. When Clemson University proudly announces it is only increasing tuition by 1% due to its “commitment to providing an affordable, high-quality education…” it is saying “look over here” – not at the underlying tuition. Michigan’s Kettering University just announced it would keep tuition flat next year (“our commitment to affordability is embodied in our decision to freeze our tuition for the 2020-2021 entering class”) without mentioning that tuition is already $44,380. Even announcements by Christian colleges like Kuyper – where the school’s commitment to “make a Kuyper College education as affordable as possible” has led to a tuition freeze – neglect to mention the actual level of tuition.

Other tuition feints include situating the percentage increase in the context of historically higher increases (e.g., Duke: “the 3.7% increase was the lowest rate of increase… in more than 20 years”). Then there’s Ithaca College, which takes a gas station pricing approach to tuition increases: a 2.95% increase (look at the 2, think of 2% not 3%, isn’t that’s better?). And of course, when colleges and universities do reference actual tuition in these announcements, the common practice is to disclose tuition per semester, which looks approximately half as bad.

Tuition freezes are better than the alternative. But you don’t see Mercedes Benz waving the flag of affordability when it refrains from increasing sticker price. Although they kind of sound the same, there’s a big difference between holding down tuition increases and holding down tuition. Now, refraining from increasing tuition for nine consecutive years – as Mitch Daniels has done at Purdue – may amount to the same thing. But keeping already-unaffordable tuition flat for one year and declaring victory is positively Trumpian.

The underlying problem is that the water’s not fine. For more than 30 years, colleges and universities have increased tuition at roughly double the rate of inflation (and recently room, board, and student fees at double the level of tuition). Yes, many step-function increases – particularly in the years following the Great Recession – were the result of public colleges and universities struggling with reductions in state funding. But the end result is tuition that is unaffordable for all but students from high income families. In a recent report, the Education Trust estimated that tuition is at least $3,000 too high in nearly every state, and more than $10,000 too high in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Alabama, and South Carolina.

I don’t often pay attention to U.S. News rankings except to make fun of them, but here’s a new one that’s less silly: America’s public universities with the highest in-state tuition. They range from Southern University and A&M in Louisiana, which charges an unfathomable $43k, to Penn State and University of Virginia, which are around $18k. (Wacky U.S. News then goes on to refer disappointed readers to other resources – “Don’t see your school in the top 10?...” – without regard to the fact that this is a list students should want no part of.) Trying to shift the focus of 2020-21 tuition from eye-watering five- (and soon to be six-) digit numbers to small numbers like 1, 2, or 3% may fool prospective students like Mayor Vaughn fooled Amity beachgoers and Trump fools Fox News viewers, but at what cost?

In the past few weeks, Jeff Selingo has rightly focused on the growing gap between actual financial aid provided to students and what financial aid formulas say students can afford. According to Mark Kantrowitz, in the eight years from 2008 to 2016, the annual gap grew to over $11k at public universities (an increase of 72%) and to over $16k at private institutions (up 43%). And while millions of families may have some way of crossing this gap for the first year, as Jeff points out, “high school seniors and their families might figure out how to fill their gap for the first year of college because they desperately want to go to a certain school, but often they don’t plan for years two through four.” Luring students in this way is as irresponsible as anything Mayor Vaughn or President Trump has done.

Those of you who remember life before Spotify may recall Columbia House, the “club” that offered 8 CDs for a penny if you committed to purchase six at an absurdly high price (and don’t forget the shipping and handling, which is how they really made their money). In marketing-speak, Columbia House’s model was a “negative option” – “hooking people with a good deal and then roping them into a contract.” So I’m half expecting the next tuition trick to be a first-year discount – fill the gap for the first year, but only the first year. When it comes to tuition, the ethos at some schools seems to be convince ‘em they’re getting a good deal by whatever means necessary, get ‘em in the door, take their tuition, and hope for the best. That’s some negative option!

The current public health crisis has exposed the true stripes of our Commander-in-Chief and – when it comes to tuition – provides an opportunity for colleges and universities to stop acting like him. Trump is prioritizing his own prospects over the health of American citizens. Colleges and universities are prioritizing their own prospects over the financial health of American students. But as schools go online through the rest of the current academic year and develop a direct (i.e., not mediated by OPMs) understanding of the marginal cost of delivering high-quality programs of study without bells, whistles, or hundreds of associate deans, they have a unique opportunity to rethink cost structures and priorities. Here’s hoping a few will take advantage of this opportunity to stop the sleight of hand and reset tuition.

I recognize few people are stewing about college tuition in the midst of coronavirus. But from crisis comes opportunity. Mayor Vaughn didn’t deserve to be reelected. Neither does President Trump. And the same fate should befall Boards of Trustees and Presidents who continue to focus attention on tuition freezes or limited increases when tuition levels are so clearly unconscionable.