President Obama isn't too pleased that the cost of college has escalated at four times the rate of inflation over the last 20 years, but there is little he can do to actually lower tuitions. Obama's White House meeting with university presidents last week showed that he will need to rely on peer pressure aimed at his higher-education buddies to push for cheaper college options.
If Obama is the good cop, where is the bad cop? It seems like there should be a scary guy standing in partial shadow behind the president whispering, "Hey, Bates College or Penn State, stop charging so much or life could get difficult."
Education Secretary Arne Duncan may be that guy. He signed off on the agency's college affordability web site that ranks colleges based on price. The goal is to make it easy to spot the bargains and the rip-offs. That's how we know that Penn State is ranked highest for tuition among public, four-year universities. Bates is ranked highest among private, four-year colleges. (The rankings are slightly skewed in the private college arena because several colleges at the top of the list, like Bates, include room and board in their tuitions.)
Duncan sounded just a little bit like a heavy last week in a speech to Florida high school students. "Colleges themselves have to be thoughtful. They have to be part of the solution. They just can't have tuition skyrocketing faster than the rate of inflation," he said. He also urged parents to think carefully about where they send their kids to school, particularly if a school's tuition is rising and its graduation rates are falling. "You have 6,000 choices," he said.
OK, so that's not very intimidating. But it's about as close as a cabinet secretary can get.
What can the federal government do to bring down the costs of college? What can states do? How can colleges be more "thoughtful" about tuition, as Duncan requests? How much responsibility should higher education institutions take for rising college costs? Is the weak economy to blame for some of the increase?