Cutting College Costs Isn’t That Hard – Just Ask This Man

Everyone recognizes that college costs are a problem. It’s simply impossible not to. The cost of higher education has surged 538 percent since 1985 according to the Institute for Higher Education Policy. In current dollars things look even worse. According to data from the College Board, college costs have soared from $1,600 a year in 1973 to more than $18,000 in 2013.

That sharp rise dwarfs the 286 percent jump in medical costs, which have dominated the public policy debate over the past 10 years. And those tuition hikes don’t even take into sharp increases in room and board, books, supplies and transportation, which can push student loan debt into the stratosphere.

Things have gotten so bad, so fast that colleges now cheer when they “only” have to increase tuition by less than 5 percent. Last year, when the cost of college was only hiked by 3.6 percent on average, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities practically dislocated their shoulder in trying to pat themselves on the back.

“This is concrete evidence of the efforts of state colleges and universities to control costs and continue to provide affordable, high quality college opportunities despite sizeable budget cuts by the states,” the group wrote in a press release.

Everyone in Washington sees the problem. Both parties are offering a lot of talk. Some Members are offering plans. But rare is the person who is actually doing something about it. That’s where former Indiana governor-turned-college president Mitch Daniels comes in. The USA Today editorial board writes:

You’d think that freezing tuition or — heaven forbid — cutting it was impossible.

In fact, it isn’t. Just ask Mitch Daniels, a former federal budget director and Indiana governor who froze tuition at Purdue University after taking over as president in January 2013.

On Friday, Daniels will ask trustees to continue the freeze into a third year. In-state students will pay $10,000 through the 2015-16 school year and out-of-staters $28,794.

This, says Daniels, “turned out not to be terribly hard to do.” He asked school leaders to shift their thinking. “Instead of asking our students’ families to adjust their budgets to our desired spending, let’s try to adjust our spending to their budgets,” he told the USA TODAY Editorial Board.

Daniels came to the job with no real knowledge of academia. He was a businessman – having worked as the CEO of the Hudson Institute and President of Eli Lilly – and he was a leader – having also served as Senior Advisor to Ronald Reagan and Director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush. And it’s those experiences – finding inefficiencies, maximizing revenue, digging deep into budgets, focusing on return on investment – that are changing the way Purdue operates.

The cuts Daniels are making are in no way extreme, or even very difficult, they’re just sensible – the kinds of cuts a businessman would consider no-brainers, but an academician would never even think of. Things like combining certain administrative posts, moving to volume purchasing for food and cutting the university’s lobbying budget.

“It has been too easy in higher education for institutions to decide first what they would like to spend and then raise student bills to produce the desired funds. That approach has run its course,” Daniels wrote in a March 18 letter. “At Purdue, we will make our first goal affordability, accommodating our spending to students’ budgets and not the other way around.”

The goal is to shift focus away from just having more and newer stuff because that’s what administrators want, to truly understanding what students—the ones who are picking up the tab—want to pay for. That shouldn’t be a radical idea. But in higher education, an industry that has changed little in a hundred years, even the smallest, most commonsense notion is enough to start a revolution. At least we can hope it will.