WASHINGTON – Among those businesses that suffered barely a scratch in the Great Recession and this continuing slump is the college industry, sis-boom-bah!
Depending on which survey one sees, tuitions and fees soared 27 percent over inflation in the last five years, or four and a half times inflation since 1980, or just plain 104 percent in the last decade.
In response, families struggling with flattened incomes got crocodile tears from Congress and President Obama. The president and the members weeks ago slunk away from the student loan crisis, as they have from the universities’ tuition grabs.
The student loan deal returned current interest rates to a hefty 3.9 percent, but that will grow as the cost of government borrowing surely swells. Obama in his 2012 annual message warned colleges they would face cuts in federal funding if they failed to curb student costs.
A year and a half later, there is no such bill on the calendar and the White House has offered nothing. So the tuition increases go on. Virginia’s recent announcement was cute. It announced a 5.1 percent increase for existing students, but a 14 percent increase for new students at the state’s elite schools, such as the College of William and Mary.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, with the state’s economy still in irons two years ago, supported the five-year program raising tuition from 5 percent to 8 percent a year at the state’s four-year units. A radical tax increase on working families.
Why do almost all universities stick the folks in this way? Simply, because they can. Just like the military-industrial complex, the health insurance trade, and the financial houses, the college business spends obscene amounts lobbying this town and giving money to candidates.
The big university cash lavished on Capitol Hill shields high-salaried campus executives and their procurement contracts from you, the forgotten citizen.
Johns Hopkins University, a so-called “private” institution, spent $800,000 lobbying Congress and the administration and donated $500,000 to federal candidates last year. A pretty good investment for the $1.9 billion in federal research grants it got in 2011, according to the watchdog Center for Responsive Politics.
“Private” Stanford University donated $2.4 million to candidates in 2012, according to the CRP, in exchange for $656 million in federal cash in 2011.
All major institutions get lots of federal green. If they don’t respond with campaign cash, then they let a member of Congress or senator make a commencement speech, or confer an honorary degree. Within three years of his winning a seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Alfonse D’Amato, R-Long Island, exacted doctoral hoods from five universities in his home state.
For the largest universities, the game takes on the patina of an elegant racket. In the depths of the recession in 2009, then Brown University President Ruth Simmons got a 5.5 percent raise from her pay of $818,000 along with $300,000 for sitting on the Goldman Sachs board. Ohio State’s recently retired president, Gordon Gee, is angling for millions in severance in addition to his $2 million a year pay.
Congress and the president can very easily put a stop to this scheme. There are plenty of programs that tie incentives to federal aid. Medicaid is one. States get a federal bonus if they curb billboards on interstate highways.
The government gives universities about $33 billion a year for research, which is nearly two-thirds of all the research money universities get. Linking these grants to tuition restraint is not rocket science. Two of the biggest donors, the Defense Department and the Science Foundation, work for Obama. He likes executive orders. Go ahead and write some.