Office of the President

David Daniel: Mr. President, Here’s the New Normal on College Campuses

Feb. 2, 2012
The Dallas Morning News

President Barack Obama recently admonished universities: “If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down.”

Mr. President, reduced taxpayer funding has already happened. It is the primary cause of tuition increases for the past 20 years.

In 1991, for every dollar a student at my institution, the University of Texas at Dallas, paid in tuition, the state of Texas provided $4.23 in funding. Last year, for every dollar paid in tuition, the state provided 41 cents.

Next fall, state support will drop to about 37 cents per tuition dollar. We have become a tuition-supported, state-assisted institution. The same is true of most of the nation’s major public research universities.

These universities paved America’s path to greatness in earlier generations. Innovation and discovery in university research labs led to new products, new services and new jobs. America dominated the global economy after World War II because we were home to nearly all of the world’s best research universities. If we stop being that place, the brightest in the world — including our own American students — can and will go someplace else. Jobs will go with them.

States should treat public higher education as a critical investment. But the trend is clear: Future funding for high-quality public universities will come primarily from tuition, research support and other sources, such as philanthropy.

What to do? Focus on scholarships and financial aid to make it possible for any well-qualified student to attend a public university. And each institution needs to look at tuition through the eyes of students and parents, then provide reasonable projections of both cost and benefit.

At UTD, we began addressing these issues in 2007 with the launch of fixed tuition. Students are guaranteed the same tuition and academic fee rates for up to four years. More than 15,000 UTD students are eligible to pay no increase in tuition next year.

Most universities avoid fixed-rate tuition. It limits flexibility to react to large reductions in state funding, and universities with low graduation rates are disadvantaged by a plan like ours. But for UTD, the good will earned by locking in tuition costs and the incentive the four-year guarantee provides to graduate on time more than offset the risk.

On a national and state level, our leaders must realize that mediocre, underfunded universities do not serve anyone well. They’re a disaster, in fact, causing loss of global competitive position. The stakes are too high to allow a dilution of the work of our great research universities by the broad-brush application of a “no tuition increases” standard that fails to accurately value outcomes.

What should our president do? Fund student aid. Then let the marketplace work. Students want quality education. They will buy the best they can attain and afford.

What should states do? Use public money to leverage private giving, a strategy exemplified by the Texas Research Incentive Program, which matches private money with state funds, maximizing the impact of every tax dollar.

What should university presidents do? Continue to drive toward cost reductions and efficiencies, raise private support dollars, and sustain top quality. Our costs at UTD have risen little more than the Consumer Price Index over the past decade or so. We aim to keep costs reasonable, but quality will never be cheap.

It appears there is a new normal in America with respect to how we fund public universities. I hope that I am wrong, and that decades-long trends change. But in any case, the stakes for America are too high to let declining state funding degrade our research universities. They are the heart and soul of creation, discovery, innovation, new job creation. Nothing short of our future prosperity is at stake.

Updated: February 2, 2012