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Read the entire speech here. No commentary provided today.


The debate over tuition occurs at a time of increasingly vitriolic attacks on the purpose of higher education. Several books and articles about higher education have asserted, among many other things, that tuition and fees are too high and are rising too fast; professors are overpaid and spend too little time teaching; and administrative positions have proliferated to excess, in part, because universities no longer are simply focusing on education but are also addressing programs such as athletics.

I disagree with much of this criticism.  These types of arguments oversimplify and systematically ignore the fact that our leading research universities, buttressed by peer-reviewed government research programs such as those of the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation as well as visionary philanthropy, today provide the world standard for economic development and for study in the 21st century of science, health care, engineering, professional education, the humanities, social sciences, and the creative arts.

Nations such as China and India are spending hundreds of billions of dollars in additional funds because they appreciate the decisive role United States research universities have played in our nation’s remarkable post-World War II economic and social progress.  As Deng Xioping put it in a pivotal 1977 speech, “[t]he key to achieving modernization [in China] is the development of science and technology [and education].”

It is misleading to focus solely on the cost of higher education without simultaneously considering the benefits to our nation, our students, and our future that our research universities provide.  Focusing entirely on cost is one consistent oversimplification of these critiques.

A second consistent oversimplification is to treat all institutions of higher education as if they were the same.  Let me highlight how segmented our universities and colleges are.  Too often the discussion of the costs of higher education has lumped together our leading research universities, all public and private four-year institutions of higher education, community colleges, and for-profit institutions.

Currently, for example, there are approximately 4,500 postsecondary institutions, of which 1,167 are community colleges.  Community colleges often are in the front line in state workforce development programs and focus on key entry-level areas of employment.  It has been quite concerning the extent to which the national discussion has often attempted to urge that all postsecondary institutions should be equally focused on entry-level work force development.

Today there are approximately 1,200 postsecondary for-profit institutions.  They have been defended because they provide access to many who would not be able otherwise to attend a college or university. But there are important questions about the effectiveness and quality of the for-profit segment that have not been meaningfully addressed to date.  Too many for-profit institutions, such as the University of Phoenix, have graduation rates as low as 12 percent.  For-profit institutions enroll approximately 12 percent of all students but receive approximately 25 percent of all federal student aid.  When data such as these are reported, legitimate questions can be posed about how well these institutions are aligned with our national interest.  These questions are particularly pertinent today.  Between 2000 and 2011, enrollment in for-profit institutions has quadrupled.

Today 2,774 of our nation’s postsecondary institutions provide four-year undergraduate programs.  But not all four-year programs are alike.

The 60 United States members of the Association of American Universities (AAU) are a small proportion of these institutions but perform an extraordinary role in pursuing national goals in research.  AAU institutions currently account for 58 percent of all federally sponsored research expenditures; have many graduates in positions of national leadership; and make numerous contributions to medicine, science, engineering, professional schools, the humanities, social sciences, and creative arts.

Our University as well as the AAU and other leading university organizations today are involved in determined efforts to defend our segment of higher education and to make the case for the alignment of leading research universities with our national interest.

Our leading research universities have been highly responsive to a national preference for budget discipline.  Reporting peers to date have adopted tuition increases for FY 13 ranging from 3 to 4.9 percent.

In our College of Arts, Sciences and Engineering during the past seven years, tuition increases have decreased from 8.1 percent to 4.5 percent this year, despite significant increases in tuition remission and reductions in endowment payout.

Today, in what should be a leading national debate concerning higher education, state support for public universities continues to plummet.  In a nation where universities are the laboratories of medical, scientific, and engineering discovery, the weakening of a vital segment of our nation’s universities is not in our national interest.

Significantly, access to our leading universities also has declined.  A recent Century Foundation study calculated that 74 percent of those attending what it characterized as the nation’s top 146 colleges come from the top income quartile, with only 3 percent coming from families in the bottom quartile.

3 Responses to “The National Debate About Tuition, As Seen by Our President”

  1. Michael says:

    I was thinking that it was by a different President from the title, which would hav somewhat impressed me since I’ve never seen a US President give a slide presentation (not that I may have missed a couple).
    But I guess this is a pretty standard problem in discussion, that if you are against a particlar method of funding education it becomes assumed that you are against education.

  2. Harry says:

    I am an expert in presentations and an expert presenter.

    I give Wintercow a big attaboy for his adept use of charts.

    In my dreams, Paul Krugman and Peter Singer argue with Mike Rizzo’s presentation. Dave Axerod complains about the choice of a bar chart, and argues that the pie chart should be sliced differently.

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