State of the Union highlights tuition problem, misses solution

President Obama stood in Congress on Tuesday to give his State of the Union address and made use of one of his most powerful tools: the bully pulpit. He waxed poetic on the State of the Union, presenting his agenda for the last year of his first term, making the case for his reelection and reminding us that he finished the nation’s quarrel with that bin Laden guy.

Viewers on campus who listened carefully could hear little celebrations every time the President mentioned a policy initiative.

“If you’re a high-tech manufacturer, we should double the tax deduction you get for making your products here,” he said to applause from the MRDC.

“In the next few weeks, I will sign an executive order clearing away the red tape that slows down too many construction projects,” he continued to raucous cheers from the School of Building Construction.

“If [universities] can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding [universities] get from taxpayers will go down,” he pledged.

No! Mr. President, you were doing so well! Threatening universities in order to please parents and hurt students by rising tuition won’t fix the problem. We need only look at two initiatives by Ga. state politicians to see the folly in the President’s words.

In 2006, then-governor Perdue and the Board of Regents announced the “Fixed for Four” tuition plan, which kept tuition constant for those who entered a Ga. university between 2006 and 2009. That initiative sounded great until it led to shortfalls in university budgets when state allocations disappeared and tuition couldn’t be changed to compensate. How did the regents react? They levied a $100 Academic Excellence Fee on both undergraduates and graduates.

Just last year, Gov. Deal and the General Assembly passed “Enduring HOPE,” which reduced payouts of the HOPE scholarship to what Deal pledged would be equal to 90 percent of tuition. After small increases in tuition, it seems like the Regents fulfilled the Gov.’s pledge—until one counts the $700 per year increase in the Special Institutional Fee, the successor to the Academic Excellence Fee.

These fees throw a monkey wrench into the financial plans of students at all levels. Undergraduates on financial aid and scholarships that only cover tuition (like HOPE) suddenly have to scramble for more cash. Graduate students, who pay for their tuition through waivers, see their already meager research stipends shrink even farther.

In the case of both Fixed-for-Four and last year’s Special Institutional Fee increase, officials pledged to keep tuition constant and low, and they only succeeded in enacting policies that hurt both students and Ga. universities. Well-meaning pressure from politicians resulted in unintended and (the greater sin) unanticipated consequences.

This is not to say that rising tuition is a good thing. No one likes paying a price for school that increases at a rate faster than inflation. But it’s a consequence of the increasing stature of the University System and ever-falling state appropriation.

And so we return to the State of the Union delivered by a president eager to appear on the side of those hurt by the recession and score one for students and parents besieged by rising education costs.

Mr. President, you want to help students get through college without crippling debt? Then don’t focus on evil universities squeezing students for all they’re worth. Put more pressure on states to fund their critical university programs and encourage Congress to assist states struggling in the recession. Make sure Congress keeps the Pell Grant and similar programs around. That way, every student can have the chance to attend college, despite rising tuition.

Finally, use your bully pulpit to promote the causes of research and innovation, for it is federal research dollars that give universities like Tech the funding they need.