Episode 5: Why has tuition increased so much?!

Nobody likes to talk about it, but we're going to... why does tuition cost so much and why does it keep increasing?

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everybody, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education. I am Steve Meredith, and I am joined as always by Southern Utah University's president Scott Wyatt.  Hi, Scott.

Scott Wyatt: Good morning, Steve.

Meredith: Today we are going to talk about a thing that nobody really likes to talk about with higher education, and that is the cost of tuition and why it's gone up so much.

Wyatt: That's right. We talked a couple weeks ago about what a great return on investment tuition is.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: The cost of higher education is still a great investment and the return at Southern Utah University is coming back to the student within about 7 years.

Meredith: Yes, that's a shameless advertisement for podcast number 3--return on investment.

Wyatt: [Laughing] Yeah, in truth we're very fortunate in Utah because Utah has the 3rd lowest tuition among all states so far as public as universities go. We are proud of that, and Southern Utah University's tuition is about 3rd less than the national average.

Meredith: So still very affordable.

Wyatt: Yeah, but this shouldn't cause us to say we don't need to be worried about the cost, because it is a great return and we are less expensive than everybody else. So, we are focused on this and we have been working hard over the past few years to keep the cost down. But the question is still there: Why is it that over the last 20 years, 40 years, 60 years that tuition has gone up substantially faster than inflation?

Meredith: A lot of the things that I read seem to indicate that it's tied largely to state appropriation for public higher education institutions, and that they have increasingly and in some cases dramatically dropped over the past 20 or 30 years. Is that not the sole reason, or maybe even the primary reason?

Wyatt: Well it's part of the reason. As the demands on the public have grown - -  entitlements and roads and all these other things - -  as those have grown, higher education nationally has been getting a smaller piece of the state budget pie. We used to receive . . .  a few decades ago we were receiving about 70% of our budget from the state taxpayer and today it's just less than 50%.

Meredith: That's still high comparatively to a national average, right?

Wyatt: Oh yeah. I have presidents tell me that their states giving them 12%, or 15%, or 20%.

Meredith: So, we are still in good shape, but that being said nobody wants to take a 20% cut or can absorb a 20% cut like that without having tuition go up.

Wyatt: We can say at the same time, we are very grateful to our public and to our legislator for being so supportive. But also, acknowledging the fact that if our budget state support portion has declined from 70% to 50%, 48%. That expense is picked up somewhere, and it is typically picked up in student tuition.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: But the other part of this is, I think that we are seeing Steve, is that the universities actually have a very different mission today than they had years ago. The different mission is a much-expanded mission, and that expanded mission is expensive. So, let's just kind of take a look at this, and I think that most state universities would have a similar story. Our school began in 1897 with 161 students and a grand total of 4 employees. Those four employees were all four faculty members. No staff - -  and so these faculty members were responsible to take care of the library and one of them was the president. What a cushy job to be the president of 4 people including yourself.

Meredith: I bet that feels pretty good to you.

Wyatt: [Laughing] That would be great. But it was basically teaching, and everything else was just kind of minor and in support of teaching. Then as we go forward through the decades by the time we get up to about 1960 we've seen this growth of staff members, but we still have 4 faculty members for every 1 support staff. It still basically teaching that's really going on. Its teaching plus support of the teaching mission. Then when we move on to the 80's there is this shift that occurs at our university, and I think generally around the country, where during the 80's late 70's we see that number of staff members becomes larger than the faculty members, and it takes off and never looks back. Today we have 1.7 staff members for every member of our faculty. I was talking to the president of a larger university recently and was told that that university has 4 staff members for every 1 faculty members.

Meredith: So, it's now completely inverted from the way it used to be.

Wyatt: Its inverted.

Meredith: Instead of 4 to one faculty its 4 to one staff.

Wyatt: Yeah, and for us, we still don't have twice as many full-time staff members as faculty members. But we might ask, what are all of these staff members doing? What's going on? And is that perhaps in part an explanation for the rising cost of tuition.

Meredith: I know faculty asks you the question regularly.

Wyatt: That's right. 'Why are you hiring more staff members, we need more faculty members?' That's another topic for another day. But it's still related to the same piece, and that is that today universities are doing much, much more than just teaching. I could put these into probably 2 categories - - one is that, going back several decades we used to take in the universities-- students who were basically prepared to study and if they weren't then tough luck. So today we have all kinds of services to help these students: developmental math, developmental language, extra tutoring, counseling, career advising, just all of the kinds of things that I think that most students 40, 50 years ago didn't need.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: Then the other part of this is that not only are we serving a broader student but we are serving a broader community. Today it is expected that universities do lots of things and so we are responsible for economic development and community services. Our community can draw more new business if we have a vibrant athletic program, if we have arts. If we reach out to business and find out what it is we can do to help them grow, then we can create special programs for them and the purpose of this is not directly related to teaching our students, it is more directly related to building the economy of the community. Where these students may not have actually grown up. They are just visiting as students. Then they will go home to their own community someday.

Meredith: There are other services that are traditionally community-based that the university now provides. For example, we have our own police force.

Wyatt: Right, the community doesn't have the resources available to them to take care of the burdens, I guess you could say, that we create. So, we have our own police department, we have our own mental health counseling. We have about a dozen full-time counselors helping students with every imaginable mental health challenge they have. Mental health. The Federal government expects us to pay attention to the new kinds of things that no one was interested in 50, 60 years ago . . . Title IX and Title VII. As our world becomes more global, we are now interested in global issues, international programs and opportunities. Nobody was thinking about that when our university was founded. The global world, what's that?

Meredith: Everything you just mentioned enhances and enriches in some way, the student experience, or makes it possible for the community and the university to happily co-exist. But all of those things are expensive.

Wyatt: They are all expensive, that's right. So, our mission is different; the students we serve are different, and the community expectations are different.

Meredith: We call this Solutions for Higher Education. Now we've discussed the problem, what's the solution?

Wyatt: Well I think the solution requires us to begin with being grateful for everybody's support. But then to acknowledge that the cost of educating the student in a very different world, have simply gone up, and the student needs to help pay some of those costs. But as our mission has evolved, and as we have taken over a stronger role of community service things that were traditionally state, county, city responsibilities, the community needs to step up and help us with those aspects of our mission. And so, the solution continues to be a combination of tuition and public support. The declining public support needs to be reversed, because our support of community has in a sense reversed. In that we are doing more and more and more that is directly targeted at supporting the community.

Meredith: You've been listening to solutions for higher education, with Scott Wyatt president of SUU, we'll be back again soon, thanks for listening!