Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

ABOR needs to debate value of college education

What’s a college education worth? Usually, that’s a rhetorical question but this week it’s specific as the Arizona Board of Regents meets in Tucson to consider hefty tuition increases at the state’s three universities.

Except few regents and protesting students, or even the university presidents requesting the hikes, will talk about state higher education in terms of value or worth. Instead they will likely talk about cost.

And it will cost more to attend a state university next year. The regents may choose to trim back the requested increases but it’s highly unlikely they will hold the line on tuition, and less likely that they will reduce it.

University of Arizona President Robert Shelton has proposed a 25 percent increase in UA undergraduate tuition and 225 percent increase in mandatory student fees for next year, an overall increase of $2,130, or about 31 percent.

For students on the five-year plan, which is about how long it takes for the average student to get an undergraduate degree at UA, the increase, if approved, will mean their last semester will cost about 88 percent more than what they paid as freshmen in fall 2006. [$8,972 tuition and fees next year vs. $4,766 tuition and fees in 2006]

That’s the cost. But will the UA be an 88 percent better school in 2010-2011 than it was in 2006-2007? Or is it the same school, just 88 percent more expensive?

One of the arguments the university presidents will make this week is that they have to increase tuition because the state has decreased its funding. Yet while the state’s cuts to higher education the past five years have been severe, they haven’t been 88 percent severe.

“Blame the state Legislature” is good rhetoric but a bad argument because the facts don’t’ support it. It’s becoming increasingly more expensive to attend state universities because the university presidents, with the acquiescence of the regents, need more money to keep up with Joneses, not simply to cover state funding reductions.

There has been a higher education arms race going on across the country the past few decades in which universities compete for top-level academics who attract the best students and, more importantly, attract the best private and public grants to fund their research.

It’s all about prestige, school rankings, new buildings, high salaries and billions of dollars in grants. But what’s that prestige worth to the student? Can it be measured in terms other than dollars?

As a society, it is in all our best interests to support higher education. Our lives and livelihoods depend on well-trained doctors, nurses, engineers, scientists, teachers, computer programmers, entrepreneurs, accountants, and, yes, even lawyers, bureaucrats and journalists.

So the cost of obtaining this training should be born in part by the greater society, meaning taxes, and not just by the students themselves. But where does the public’s support end and the student’s begin?

And does well-trained require being well-educated? Does an engineer need to know the difference between Descartes’ rationalism and Kierkegaard’s existentialism in order to build a bridge?

In addition to debating the cost of college education in Arizona this week, the regents need to debate the value of it. Are students and Arizonans getting a good value for their money?

Will the UA be a 31 percent better school next year than this year? Or just 31 percent more expensive?

Search site | Terms of service