When It Comes to the Cost of Public Universities, We Can Bring Back the Old Days

At least in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (God save it!) anyway.

Given the one trillion dollars of student debt in the U.S., we often read that universities will need to reinvent themselves so as to remain financially sustainable (here’s one pessimistic take). This often leads to bold proposals to Reimagine Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century or some similar folderol.

In the past, I’ve attempted to point out that the problem isn’t the education per se, but the price. But I was curious what it would take to send every Massachusetts resident to a state college or university without having to pay tuition or fees–that is, for free. The answer is, not that much. It certainly wouldn’t require increasing the state budget by twenty percent or anything like that.

Let’s walk through the numbers (TEH MATHZ?!? AIIEEE!!!). Unfortunately, not all of the data are current, so I’ve made some conservative (hopefully) overestimates based on recent data. In 2009 – 2010, the total student population of state institutions was 291,512, so let’s say with population growth that we have a student body of 300,000. In 2008 – 2009, the weighted average of tuition and fees was $6,399 (and, no I have no idea why the student body numbers reported by the state are from a different year than the average tuition numbers). This means the total amount of revenue raised by tuition and fees would be about $1.92 billion. Doing some estimation of the average of the increase since 2008, I peg the increase at around $180 million. This yields a total of about $2.1 billion, although this assumes every attendee is a state resident.

Now that sounds like a lot, but the Massachusetts state budget for 2013 is $32.5 billion. What we’re talking about here is somewhere in the neighborhood of a 6.5% increase in revenue. That’s not insurmountable; in fact, it’s easily within the realm of possibility.

Every day, when I go to work, I pass the Boston Public Library and on it are two inscriptions. One explains why we need education: “The Commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty.” The other, spoken by the Lebanese-born poet Kahlil Gibran who bequeathed a generous donation to the BPL, describes our obligation: “It was in my heart to help a little, because I was helped much.” Those who came before understood the need and rose to the occasion. Now, more than ever, it is our turn to do so again.

It is within our power to do a great and good thing. The question is will we do so?

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1 Response to When It Comes to the Cost of Public Universities, We Can Bring Back the Old Days

  1. joemac53 says:

    Because my working life as a public school teacher left me rolling in the dough, I was able to send my youngest daughter to a high-priced fancy pants private university instead of the public university. The difference out of my pocket was $4000 per year. Four Thousand, not forty. All my relations and many of my friends went to the state u back in the 60’s and 70’s for cheap. Two summer jobs and some work study and you could afford beer as well as tuition.
    My youngest also took a semester abroad (gotta have that complete college experience) where the European socialists she lived with went to school for free and got some money to live on as well.
    Thank goodness she will have enough debt when she graduates that she will have to get a job straightaway!

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