When College Tuition is Too Cheap

College students and their parents hate to see tuition increases.

So why are students at the University of Florida, Florida State, the University of Montana and elsewhere clamoring for tuition hikes?

Here’s a clue: When universities are starved for cash, academic quality shrinks and students eventually notice.

That’s what has been happening at state universities in Florida. According to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, students have been watching professors leave for better paying jobs in other states. They’ve also noticed that more undergrads have been getting crammed into classrooms and it’s getting tougher to graduate on time.

Students at Florida’s six research universities pay an average tuition of $4,127 versus $6,909 nationally. Is this a great educational bargain if the price paid in the classroom is too high?

It’s a similar story in Montana where student representatives at the state’s two largest public universities are urging the governor and state legislature to stop imposing yearly tuition freezes. The student government reps argue that another year of tuition freezes  wouldn’t be worth the trade off — fewer classes and teacher cuts. (Tuition at the University of Montana is $5,150.)

One of my pet peeves about higher ed coverage is that the media focuses almost exclusively on tuition — and proposed increases — when writing about college affordability. Simply examining tuition levels, however, is simplistic.

It’s best to step back and look at what the total cost of attending a particular university might be. And a good place to start is four-year grad rates. At the University of Montana, 19.7% of students graduate in four years and I’m assuming one reason for the grim figure is because there isn’t enough revenue to get the kids in and out in four years. In this light, is a $5,150 tuition a bargain if it takes a student six year to graduate?

I’m all for universities doing what they can to cut costs. A great place to find out how schools can do this is at the website of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, Accountability. But I’m afraid that students at some state schools have to be realistic about what they will have to pay for their bachelor’s degree.

Learn more about paying for college by reading my book, The College Solution, and visiting my college blog at CBSMoneyWatch.com.

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