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Douglas: Rising Cost Of College

05/07/12 5:55PM By Jim Douglas
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(Host) As the academic year comes to a close, many graduates will be heading for an uncertain future. One thing that's all too certain, though, is the debt that many will be presented along with their diplomas. Former Vermont Governor and commentator Jim Douglas has some thoughts on the cost of a college degree.

(Douglas) A few months ago Forbes magazine offered its readers a quiz: ‘which major service industry,' it asked, ‘has raised prices twice as fast as health care? The answer is higher education.'

The symptoms are obvious and we often discussed this at governors' conferences. We expressed our collective frustration at multi-million dollar contracts for coaches and administrators and shrinking resources for state institutions. The current debate over interest rates on Stafford loans highlights the trillion dollars that college graduates now owe for their education. President Obama, in this year's State of the Union message, raised the ire of higher education leaders when he suggested that colleges and universities need to better control their expenditures and be stronger partners in restraining costs.

We have some real advantages in Vermont: there are more higher education institutions here per capita than anywhere else; we don't have the huge salaries at our public schools that are prevalent in other states; and we have an affordable option, the Community College of Vermont, that provides access throughout the state to students who could not otherwise afford to attend college. It's a tremendous resource that caters in both curriculum and schedule to those who have other obligations, such as a family or job.

But even in Vermont we need to make college more affordable. It's critical to our state's future. Too many of our kids go elsewhere after graduating from high school and many never return. If we're going to have a strong economy, we need to educate more of our young people here. There are several steps we could take.

In 2006 I proposed a $175 million scholarship program that would have benefited 12,000 students, who would have been required to remain in Vermont for several years after graduation. Unfortunately the proposal was rejected by the legislature. We need to provide more support.

We have a lot of infrastructure in higher education. A large research university and 5 state colleges are a lot for a small state; I appointed a commission a few years ago to examine whether a closer relationship among them would be beneficial, but the group declined to offer a bold, cost-saving solution.

Administrators and trustees of our public institutions must work harder to restrain spending and tuition increases, which have usually been greater than inflation.

I believe in the value of a higher education; I'm privileged to work at Middlebury College. But that value is being questioned in some quarters: The Economist analyzed the cost of an MBA degree and the salaries earned by those who achieve it. It concludes that the incremental financial value, because of rapidly increasing costs over the past decade, has nearly disappeared.

Vermont's public and private colleges and universities have done well in offering a high-quality experience. We should heed the President's call for greater economy, however; we all have the right to expect that entities with which we do business, especially those supported by government, are doing everything possible to keep costs under control.

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