Mitch Daniels is Proving that College Costs Don’t Have to Rise

Young adults are very fortunate that Congress is beginning to put serious thought into how to reduce the cost of college, after all, the new found focus has been a long time coming.

For the last several years the debate seemed to revolve around just how big the problem was. According to the Institute for Higher Education Policy the cost of college surged 538 percent since 1985. Others would say that even that eye-popping figure is low. Malcolm Harris, writing for N+1, finds that since 1978, the price of tuition at colleges increased by 900 percent. And Sen. Tom Harkin, using figures compiled by the Department of Labor, argues that the cost of obtaining a college degree has increased by 1,120 percent over the past 35 years.

While there is certainly consensus that the cost of college is soaring there has been a dearth of discussion as to what to do about it. That’s finally beginning to change. Sen. Mike Lee has put forward a plan that would break the accreditation cartel; Rep. Paul Ryan has introduced legislation to reform Pell Grants and student loans; and Sen. Rubio has offered ideas for new, innovative methods for paying for college.

Sadly, with the current state of things in Washington these ideas are unlikely to get off the ground anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean that the war to control college costs is lost, it just means reformers need a new battlefield. Fortunately, that is beginning to happen on a few college campuses around the nation, most notably at Purdue under the leadership of former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels.

From his first year at the helm, Daniels instituted a tuition freeze that now stretches into its third year. At a time of ever-rising college costs that seems impossible, but Daniels argues that it “turned out not to be terribly hard.” The change merely required a different mindset.

“Instead of asking our students’ families to adjust their budgets to our desired spending, let’s try to adjust our spending to their budget,” he told the USA TODAY editorial board.

The cuts Daniels made are in no way extreme, or even particularly difficult, they’re just sensible – the kinds of cuts a businessman would consider no-brainers, but an academician would have never thought 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.”

Now, with the benefit of a year’s worth of management under his belt, Daniels is moving beyond tuition into other avenues of potential savings. One of them, is the soaring cost of books, a problem he discovered when setting the reading list for a class he was teaching. The Lafayette Journal and Carrier reports:

But that reading list process was enough to keep him riled and dead set that he was doing right by Purdue students when it came to what he saw as a lack of competition in the textbook market, with prices rising for no other reason than they could and a resale market that amounted to a “dime on the dollar students get back on something they bought just a few months ago.”

“It just frosts me,” Daniels said. “There had to be a better way.”

The way Daniels came up with was to partner with Amazon to put a brick-and-mortar store on its campus where students will be able to purchase discounted books and other college essentials with the same shopping experience as on Amazon.com. Daniels’ expects that students will be able to save up to 30 percent – or $6 million – a year on textbooks. And that’s huge considering that the average cost of a students’ annual load of textbooks climbed by 82 percent over the last decade.

It’s these kinds of outside-the-box ideas that are needed in the fight against soaring college costs. And it’s leaders like Daniels that can make that a reality.