12/03/2012 06:14 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2013

Tuition Rise at Public Universities: Who's Responsible?

Tuition increases, financial aid, and current student debt have captured headlines and have been linked as cause and effect. The rise in tuition nationally at public universities has averaged 4 percent per year over the past 20 years, and the hardship that has created for students and for their families has been widely publicized and criticized. One measure of that hardship is that total student debt has recently exceeded one trillion dollars.

Most public voices agree that we are facing a growing crisis in access as the number of low income students who can afford to attend college decreases, at the same time that the president of the United States has called for a significant increase in the percent of students who pursue post-secondary education to meet national needs.

So why the steady increases over the past decade or two in college tuition that most sectors of higher education and most commentators avow they do not want? Some have argued a perverse negative feedback between the noble attempt to provide resources to those students who have limited financial means and the universities that admit them. The idea is that infusing low-income student populations with financial means to pay tuition increases demand for college matriculation and, in a simple application of supply and demand, drives up the price of college. Not having seen much evidence of that in my three decades of service in three public universities, I am compelled to consider alternative explanations.

The single greatest source of pressure pushing up tuition at public universities is the decreasing level of state support to their state public colleges and universities. Now this discussion is not going to degenerate into insulting comments about state legislatures and their lack of commitment to public higher education for their citizens. State legislatures have a complex array of problems to solve and too few resources with which to address those problems.

But the reality of steadily decreasing state support is incontestable. Some administrators in public universities comment with black humor that, over time, they have gone from being state-supported to state-assisted to state-located. One can find examples of how we have gone from adequate state support to pay for the entire teaching mission (including the capital investment for necessary infrastructure) to a number of examples today in which state support accounts for less than 10 percent of a state university's budget.

So when the bulk of a college budget (within a public university) comes from student tuition, and the state government reduces its share yet again, how are the costs of the teaching mission to be covered? Tuition must increase. In fact the trend lines for state support and for tuition are mirror images of each other: state support steadily decreases and tuition steadily increases.

Over the past 20 years, the average state funding per full-time student in public universities has decreased by nearly $2,000 (adjusted for inflation). Average tuition costs at public universities per student have increased by about $3,500 in the same time period. Therefore it can be argued that the single greatest contributor to the increase in college tuition is the loss of state support for the public universities.

I do not pretend to ignore other factors that also contribute to tuition increases, including inflation in costs of operating a university, increased services and facilities seemingly demanded by students as factors in their decisions on which university or college to attend, increased costs for reporting in response to external regulations, and inefficiencies in operation of the institution, among others. Many within higher education are responsibly and aggressively addressing these issues.

However, what is clear for most public colleges and universities is that the primary source of upward pressure on the tuition these institutions charge over the past two decades has been the long-term loss of operating support from state legislatures and not the Pell grants and other sources of financial aid to college students that provide access to those who otherwise would not be able to attend.