Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) - Rethinking Higher Education

Posted on March 1, 2009

During the 1960s American Motors president George Romney warned Detroit’s automakers, “There is nothing more vulnerable than entrenched success.” The “Big Three” paid no attention. They were building the best cars in the world – highly profitable, gas guzzling vehicles. Meanwhile, their future Japanese competitors were perfecting smaller, fuel efficient cars. Today, we are bailing out the Detroit companies that didn’t listen. American higher education would do well to heed Romney’s warning. We have the best colleges in the world. But even brisk competition at home seems to have little effect on rising tuition costs. To deal with rising college costs, I suggest: 1. that colleges offer some well-prepared students the option of a three-year baccalaureate degree, cutting one-third the time and one-fourth the cost from a college education; and 2. that community college be free for well-prepared students. This seems impossible when state community college funding is tight, Vanderbilt’s endowment declined 16.5 percent and Maryville College has a hiring freeze. Impossible, that is, unless college administrators are listening to students, states and Congressmen up in arms about rising tuition. What I hear in Congress is, “Every time we increase Pell Grants, colleges raise tuition.” In their exasperation, congress piles new rules on already overregulated colleges. The former president of Stanford estimates that complying with these regulations – which today fill a stack of boxes six feet tall – adds 7 percent to the cost of tuition. Last year, I voted against the new Higher Education bill because it doubles these regulations. The greatest threat to the quality of higher education is not underfunding, but overregulation. But to persuade other legislators to stop adding regulations, colleges are first going to have to show they know how to lower college costs. Just as a plug-in hybrid car is not for every driver, a three-year college degree is not for every student. But some well-qualified students may want to complete their work in three years (many today take five or six) and save time as well as money. This will require adjusting attitudes, faculty workloads and using campus facilities year-round. Five Upper East Tennessee counties already are offering free tuition to qualified local students at Northeast State Community College. Federal Pell Grants and the state HOPE scholarship pay most of the $1,314 per semester tuition. The five counties and private companies pay the rest. Sullivan County’s bill last year was only $80,000. During the 1980s, when I was governor, unemployment reached 11 percent, inflation reached 14 percent and interest rates reached 20 percent. Then the economy surged and Tennessee’s higher education funding growth led the nation for three years. This is more likely to happen again if higher education offers a three-year college degree option and free community college tuition. That will help regain the support of legislators and families upset about colleges that seem able only to increase tuition every time legislators increase funding.