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Editor's Note

Taking Control of the Debate

University Business, July/August 2012

I recently read a story about a family whose son is struggling to pay off nearly $200,000 in medical school debt. The family plans to help pay the debt by auctioning an 84-year-old home run baseball hit by Yankee great Lou Gehrig.

The ball belonged to a great uncle who caught Gehrig’s drive to the stands at a 1928 World Series Game. Adding to the lore is that Gehrig hit the homer off a pitch by Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander, bringing in a run by Babe Ruth who was on base. Online biding for the ball began at $37,000, and the auction house predicts it could bring as much as $200,000.

According to the article: “The cost of medical school has skyrocketed, rising 165 percent at private colleges and an astounding 312 percent at public institutions in the last 20 years. Just as student debt has soared over the last two decades, medical school debt has ballooned. Doctors are $2.3 billion in debt, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, and the average medical school graduate in 2010 left school with $158,000 in debt.”

The story underscores the problem of the rising cost of education. But medical school aside, a $200,000 debt is hardly the norm by any means—in fact the vast majority of college students graduate with an average of $25,000 or less in debt. My real complaint with the story—and many like it—is that it doesn’t explain why education costs so much. What’s missing from the equation are the people who actually work in higher education. More often than not, the people who can explain why the cost currently outpaces the rate of inflation are silent on the subject. Readers are left to assume that higher ed administrators must be greedy, while pundits and politicians are eager to jump in with knee-jerk reactions.

That’s why it was refreshing to later read a fiery comment by Lawrence Pitts, provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs at the University of California. Pitts had written an unrelated editorial, lambasting media coverage of the school’s unfunded pension obligations.

The press, he said, “implies that tuition is rising at UC to pay for UC’s pension program. That is flat wrong. Tuition is rising because state funding for UC has eroded over the past 20 years. Readers may not realize that UC receives the same absolute level of state support today as it did in 1997-98, when there were 75,000 fewer students.”

Remember that it was this country’s commitment to education through such efforts as the GI Bill and the Higher Education Act of 1965 that encouraged millions of students to further their education in the first place. When state and federal governments cut that funding, schools must close the gap with reduced resources and tuition increases. Then, in a vicious cycle, if the schools fail to perform, the threatened punishment is to withhold even more funding.

Higher education leaders must do more to take control of the debate. More need to follow Pitts’ lead and set the record straight.