Last week, CSU President Tony Frank asked the question: Whatâ€™s a public university without public funding? It seems an awful lot like a private university, he said, and that has a lot of people worried. My question in response is: Whatâ€™s so bad about being private?
One major reason public education is viewed as superior is not its quality — in every set of national rankings, public and private universities are interspersed with each other — but that itâ€™s viewed as accessible and affordable for all.
Community colleges, for instance, serve those who donâ€™t fit the profile of a traditional college student; public universities tend to have lower tuition rates than their private counterparts.
However, these are not uniquely features of public universities. Private, for-profit universities such as the Univeristy of Phoenix or CollegeAmerica have made serious inroads in accessibility, offering online programs and course schedules that cater to non-traditional learners.
Private universities routinely make major commitments to financial aid — not just loans, but outright grants, making many of these schools as affordable as state colleges for students from low-income backgrounds. Accessibility, affordability and quality are not necessarily a function of whether the university is public or private.
However, all three of these goals require money, and so the university needs a certain amount of revenue. It seems clear that Colorado voters have little interest in sending tax dollars our way, so the university is being forced to look elsewhere to avoid these cuts. The â€œCampaign for Colorado State University,â€ one of these efforts, has raised over $300 million in the past four years.
Thatâ€™s still not enough to make up for cuts in state funding, though — which have been building for a long time. At last weeksâ€™ Student Fee Review Board meeting, President Frank also noted that, over the past two decades, the ratio of state funds to tuition funds has gone from about 2:1 in favor of state dollars to about 2:1 in favor of tuition dollars, all while CSU has expanded programs and grown its national stature.
He estimated that CSU could be essentially independent of state funds if tuition were doubled. (Remember, state support currently only accounts for about 13 percent of CSUâ€™s overall budget, compared to 23 percent from tuition and fees, according to the universityâ€™s financial accountability report.)
While doubling tuition may sound drastic, CSUâ€™s tuition and fees for in-state undergraduates are already the second-lowest among our peers — only North Carolina State University is cheaper — and doubling tuition would move us only to second-highest, a little bit lower than the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and well within the range of similar schools nationwide. Obviously, that shouldnâ€™t happen overnight, but increasing tuition by only about 4 percent over inflation each year would get us to more than double within another two decades.Â
If I had access to the corridors of power, Iâ€™d suggest this option as an only mildly radical solution to CSUâ€™s (and CUâ€™s) budget woes — CSU could increase tuition in a gradual and controlled manner (not in the reactionary, double-digit manner when simply responding to state budget cuts), while the state could similarly decrease its contribution gradually, freeing up those funds for other state schools, transportation, tax cuts — their choice.Â
Admittedly, whenever tuition is raised, you run the risk of pricing students out of a CSU education. So increases in tuition have to be met with increases in financial aid, so that lower and middle-income students arenâ€™t paying a greater share of their or their familiesâ€™ incomes than they are now. If education is the surpassing value we claim it is, this commitment to accessibility and affordability is part of CSUâ€™s moral obligation.
But CSUâ€™s leaders also have a moral obligation to make sure that the educational opportunities we have are present for the next generation — to put forward a long-term plan for accessibility, affordability and quality. So far, I havenâ€™t seen anything that fits the bill. So if CSUâ€™s government, political and university leaders wonâ€™t take up the cause and propose radical solutions to radical problems, students should.
Seth Anthony is a chemistry graduate student. His column appears Tuesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.