Dear Tom,

It’s been two weeks since I last wrote.  When I started this blog, I committed to writing to you regularly but didn’t promise myself that I would do so weekly.  Last week was finals week at the college where I teach and I had a huge pile of grading to get through.  But now that I’m almost finished with my grading, I can return to the important work of political engagement.

I had planned to write to you this week about the Genesee River watershed and the role of the federal government in helping to clean up unsafe waters, but I see that you’ve just published a press release about your plan for higher education reform.  As someone who works in higher ed, I think I’d better comment on that instead.  I’ll come back to my thoughts on water in another letter.

In the letter introducing your plan, “Our Vision for Students,”  you say that “The average cost of attending a private four-year college is quickly approaching $50,000 per year.”  You don’t cite any source for this information, and I can’t find any source that would confirm it.  However you arrived at that number, I’m wondering if you factored in the “discount rate” of colleges.  Private colleges and universities publish a “sticker price” for tuition and then deeply discount that tuition for most students (many schools have an average discount of over 50%) by offering scholarships “paid for” by the institution.

Parents and students want to be able to say that they are choosing a school with a high price but then they also want to feel that they were valued because they received scholarships.  So colleges and universities inflate their published price and offer scholarships to get closer to what families can actually afford.  When we use the “sticker price” number to talk about the price of college (a common trend in journalism on this topic), this gives an inaccurate view of the true price of college.

Since your plan is directed at “private four-year colleges” I want talk specifically about the economic climate for the private four-year colleges in your district.  You also have an Ivy League research university–Cornell–in your district, but its economic situation (with its 6 billion dollar endowment) is so different from that of the others that I’ll leave Cornell aside.

In sum, the small private colleges in your district are in financial trouble.  Western New York state is blessed with a large number of private colleges scattered throughout its hills and valleys.  The rural counties that are home to these colleges also have a declining population and high poverty rates.  These colleges are major employers in these counties yet they are dependent on their ability to attract students from other regions and even other states.  In the past, this has worked well—western New York’s colleges are excellent and have long attracted students from outside.  These colleges then supported local economies by creating jobs—both at the lower end of the pay scale with support services and at the higher end with instructors and administrators.  But after the financial crisis of 2008, fewer students are traveling to our region to attend college even as our local populations continue to decline.  The small colleges in my region are operating with budget deficits and are desperately trying to cut enough expenses to survive without compromising what they can offer students.

You are correct that the price of college is rising and you may be correct that at some large and wealthy institutions, there is waste of resources.  I have not observed that at the small local colleges with which I’m intimately familiar.  We’ve been cutting everything we can that doesn’t directly impact the student experience–and some things that do. Our salaries are lower than the national averages for peer institutions.  We’ve lost programs and had to dismiss colleagues.  Why are costs still rising?

Tom, the biggest factor for small private colleges in rising costs is actually health care.  Because our American system of health care is structured around employers paying health insurance, as health insurance costs rise, that burden gets passed on to employers.  A college is a personnel-rich environment.  We employ a lot of people and to reduce costs in our product (education) mostly means reducing the number of people helping deliver that product:  teachers and support staff.  We can’t do much of that before we reduce the quality of our work.  So my suggestion is that if you’d like to reduce the price of college, you should actually work on health-care reform.  Take what is working in the Affordable Care Act and continue to refine it and make it better—continuing to look for ways to reduce costs.

Your ideas about increasing federal financial aid through Perkins loans and Pell grants are great ones.  If colleges like mine did not have to discount our tuition so deeply because students were bringing in more financial aid, that would be a big boost to us.  Thanks for advocating for those plans.

Be cautious, however, about criticizing the small colleges in the poor rural counties in your district using the same criteria you would use to criticize Cornell.  We are in the same marketplace, competing for the same students, but our financial positions are very, very different.  And if any of the small colleges in my region goes under (not an outrageous prediction given our precarious financial situation), that will be terrible for the local economy of the town and county where that college stood.  I know you don’t want this.

As someone concerned with excess government regulation, you will probably also be concerned about the ways in which reform plans for higher education often create extra regulatory burdens.  For example, the Textbook Information Provision  of the Higher Education Opportunities Act (HEOA) mandated that colleges tell students before they register for classes what their textbooks will cost. This has meant hours of extra work for campus stores,helping faculty make their textbook selections extra early (often before faculty have really had time to plan what they are going to teach).  These extra hours of pay go into the college budget.  And at small colleges, students don’t typically choose between sections of courses anyway.  There is only one section of Genetics or Shakespeare per semester.  Comparison shopping for courses with the cheapest textbooks isn’t something that actually helps students at small colleges.  And perversely, faculty who are rushed to choose textbooks for an early deadline may choose more expensive options because they don’t have the time to research better choices.

One more example about how well-meant regulations have raised costs for small colleges.  My institution has recently had to add a position simply to make sure that we are compliant with Title IX regulations.  Without this person, we might face serious sanctions.  I know that you understand the burden of excess regulations so I wanted you to be aware about how these can easily creep into higher-education reforms.  Please be cautious.

I’ve still got a few papers left to grade and I’m looking forward to attending Christmas concerts at my children’s school this week.  I’ve put the kids to work baking bread and cookies to give away to teachers and we’ve been enjoying having some snow on the ground.  Perhaps this is the week when we’ll pull out the cross-country skis for the first time this year and head out into our lovely local woods.

Still haven’t heard from you, Tom.  I’m waiting anxiously.  (It’s been six weeks!)  To use an expression popular with my students, are you ghosting me?

Talk to you later,

Susan

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