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Higher Ed Experts Call President Obama’s ‘College Affordability’ Speech at U of M “political theater of the worst sort”

by P.D. Lesko

President Obama came to Ann Arbor to tell the country that federal aid to colleges should be tied to tuition costs. Federal aid to students would remain untouched, and a cranky Congress would have to pass the President’s proposed plan. The reactions were swift and in some cases revealed thinly veiled contempt—and this was just from the academics:

“Fuzzy math,” Illinois State University’s president called Obama’s proposal. At Washington, President Mike Young said Obama showed he did not understand how the budgets of public universities work.

“They really should know better,” Young said. “This really is political theater of the worst sort.”

Harsh words from University presidents about the speech President Obama delivered recently at the University of Michigan.

The academic crowd didn’t stop here.

“Focusing on the net price that colleges charge is focusing on a symptom of a very complex process,” said David Feldman, chairman of the economics department at the College of William and Mary and the co-author of Why Does College Cost So Much? “ It’s naïve to think that you can jawbone down the net price without jawboning down quality.”

I didn’t bother to go to hear President Obama speak about his plans to keep college “affordable” for the masses—the speech on education he gave at the University of Michigan. I just couldn’t bring myself to go.

Bloggers all over the area, like lemmings, filed into the luxe enclosed field house built for the University of Michigan’s football team:  ”Live Tweets from President Obama’s speech!” “Video of Obama’s speech!” “Photos of President Obama!” Reporting about a pie delivered to Air Force One from a local eatery, was actually a feature on a local news site. In the old days, high schoolers kept scrap books with clippings from newspapers and magazines. Putting up video and photos and calling it coverage is an exercise in, well, uploading video and photos, scrap booking minus the scissors.

Meanwhile, Michigan residents are suffering.

Childhood poverty is up, up, up. In Michigan 20 percent of the population relies on food stamps, up from 12.5 percent in 2008, when Obama was elected. The state has lost 800,000 jobs. The President is tied with Republican Mitt Romney in recent Michigan voter polls, better than in November 2011, when Mr. Obama trailed Romney, but still not the comfortable lead Obama needs.

Despite what Governor Snyder claimed in his recent State of the State address, the state’s mass migration away from joblessness, foreclosure and economic stagnation has not abated, according to a recent analysis piece posted by Kurt Metzger to Bridge, a news and analysis site for Central Michigan.

Dr. Mary Sue Coleman, ever the politician herself, wrote an open letter to the President about the need to keep college “affordable.” In her letter, she suggested that more public funding would help keep college affordable. Seriously? She believes college is affordable? In 2011 the Pew Research Center conducted an interesting study that compared the responses of the general public to university presidents concerning the affordability, cost, and overall value of a college education. Almost twice as many university presidents (42 percent) concluded that college is affordable today than did members of the general public surveyed (22 percent).

National political analysts concluded Mr. Obama came to Michigan to deliver bread and circuses to keep the Democratic plebes in Michigan from rioting, en masse, next November and staying home instead of voting to put him back into office. He came and sat next to the highest paid public university president in the United States, at a school where leaders pat themselves on the back during meetings for cutting a total of 3.9 percent out of a multi-billion dollar budget over the past seven years.

The University of Michigan needs more public money like an addict needs more drugs. Here’s why, according to the John William Pope Center For Higher Education Policy:

Perhaps the most talked about subject pertaining to higher education in America is the fact that costs keep rising faster than the rate of inflation, faster than the growth in the number of students, faster than most family incomes. Try googling “rising cost of college” and you get more than 18 million hits.

What explains that persistent phenomenon? In a study released last month by the Goldwater Institute, authors Jay Greene, Brian Kisida, and Jonathan Mills identify a big part of the problem: administrative bloat.

“Between 1993 and 2007,” they write, “the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities grew by 39 percent, while the number of employees engaged in teaching, research, or service only grew by 18 percent. Inflation-adjusted spending on administration per student grew by 61 percent during the same period, while instructional spending per student rose 39 percent.”

The study singled out the University of Michigan. There, the number of administrators has risen at a clip, as had spending on those administrators.

According to a 2010 piece published in the Detroit Free Press: “Michigan universities increased their spending on administrative positions by nearly 30% on average in the last five years, even as university leaders say they’ve slashed expenses to keep college affordable for families. The number of administrative jobs grew 19% over that period at the state’s public universities, according to data submitted by the schools to the state budget office.”

College tuition stopped being “affordable” in the late-70s, when middle-class income began to stagnate. In 1979 the American worker’s average hourly wage was equal to $15.91 (adjusted for inflation). By 1989 it had reached only $16.63/hour. That’s a gain of only 7 cents a year for the entire Reagan decade.

By 1995 it had risen to only $16.71, or virtually no gain whatsoever over the 6 years between 1989 and 1995. During the great “boom years” between 1995 and 2000 it rose briefly to $18.33 per hour. In other words, from 1979 to 2000, even before the Bush recession, after more than two decades the American worker’s average wages increased on average only 11.5 cents per hour per year. With nearly all of that coming in the five so-called “boom” years of 1995-2000, and most of that lost once again in the last three years. And that includes for all workers, even those with college degrees.

According to information from the College Board, between 1980 and 2009 the cost of tuition at public 4-year institutions, such as Michigan, rose from $900 per year to $8,000 per year (Michigan’s tuition is currently $12,000 per year). At private 4-year institutions, tuition costs during the same period tripled rising from $9,000 per year to $27,000 per year. College ceased being “affordable” for American middle-class families three decades ago. That President Obama came to Michigan to suggest that college tuition, which is already obscenely unaffordable thanks to increases that have outpaced the cost of inflation by 2-3 percent for the past 30 years, needs to be kept “affordable” is one reason why he was roundly criticized for indulging in “political theater.” He came to Michigan to urge colleges not raise the cost of an already over-priced product “too much,” or risk losing federal funding.

EUMTalk.org, a local blog that is not affiliated with Eastern Michigan University, but rather the brainchild of Steven D. Krause, a Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at EMU, posed an excellent observation:

I realize that U of M is the big draw, but you would think this might be an opportunity for a more affordable university– say, one that had a 0/0/0% campaign– to have the chance to be on the national stage as a model for keeping costs down.

Just goes to show you what incentives places like EMU really have to be the cheapest game in town….

A comment in response to Krause’s post picks up on the absurdity of Obama delivering a speech about college affordability at a college which has raised tuition exponentially over the past three decades—tuition costs that are out of reach of many middle-class families in the state: “The President went to the University of Michigan to talk about ‘college affordability?’ When has Michigan ever been affordable? That’s like going to the Grosse Pointes and talking to people about owning an affordable home.”

It’s no wonder that national political analysts and academicians on the left, right and in the middle went about dissecting then rolling their eyes at the President’s proposed changes.

President Obama has accomplished more than his critics in Congress will ever admit to. That’s a shame, because he deserves credit for keeping our economy from imploding, for creating jobs, for crafting and getting passed historic health care legislation. On other hand, the number of people in this country on welfare has increased markedly during the President’s years in office. There are Occupy protesters all over the country in tent cities, and there are significantly more homeless veterans, women, children and families than when Barack Obama took office.

To come to Michigan to deliver a speech that urges a poorly regulated multi-trillion dollar industry, with some of the same pricing scams as big pharma, (and significant lobbying clout on the Hill) to make their product “more affordable,” is not what Michigan needs from the President. A pool of $55 million dollars for universities that keep tuition affordable? Does Mr. Obama realize that such a pool of money means little in higher education, where colleges make multiples of that from patent revenue, alone. The UC system raked in $193.4 million in patent revenues in 2008, and New York University earned $157 million in patent revenue in 2006.

It’s always nice to have the President stop by for a visit. However, next time perhaps he can stop by Wayne State University and talk about graduation rates in American higher education, a topic that is even more pressing than “college affordability.” At the moment, that “affordable” school’s graduation rate stands at an embarrassing 39 percent, the lowest of all of Michigan’s 4-year colleges and universities. 

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1 Comment for “Higher Ed Experts Call President Obama’s ‘College Affordability’ Speech at U of M “political theater of the worst sort””

  1. I thought President Obama’s speech was a good starting point. The folks whose salaries and perks are on the chopping block will whine. This is a surprise?
    The fact that UM is one of the biggest abusers makes the locale of his speech a good one.

    It would not hurt to examine inflated faculty salaries, especially at the med school.

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