WASHINGTON — Fuzzy math, Illinois State University's president called it. "Political theater of the worst sort," said the University of Washington's head.
President Barack Obama's new plan to force colleges and universities to contain tuition or face losing federal dollars is raising alarm among education leaders who worry about the threat of government overreach. Particularly sharp words came from presidents of public universities who are already frustrated by increasing state budget cuts.
Illinois State's Al Bowman said he was happy to hear Obama, in a speech Friday at the University of Michigan, urge state-level support of public universities. But, Bowman said, given the decreases in state aid, tying federal support to tuition prices is a product of fuzzy math.
Illinois has lowered public support for higher education by about one-third over the past decade when adjusted for inflation. Illinois State, with 21,000 students, has raised tuition almost 47 percent since 2007, from $6,150 a year for an in-state undergraduate student to $9,030.
Bowman said the undergraduate experience can be made cheaper, but there are tradeoffs.
"You could hire mostly part-time, adjunct faculty. You could teach in much larger lecture halls, but the things that would allow you to achieve the greatest levels of efficiency would dilute the product and would make it something I wouldn't be willing to be part of," he said.
At Washington, president Mike Young said Obama showed he did not understand how the budgets of public universities work. Young said the total cost to educate college students in his state has gone down because of efficiencies on campus. While universities are tightening costs, the state is cutting their subsidies and authorizing tuition increases to make up for the loss.
Obama's plan would need approval by Congress, a hard sell in an atmosphere of partisan gridlock.
Obama is targeting only a small part of the financial aid picture: the $3 billion known as campus-based aid that flows through college administrators to students. He wants to raise that amount to $10 billion, and change how it is distributed to reward schools that hold down costs and ensure that more poor students complete their education.
The bulk of the more than $140 billion in federal grants and loans that goes directly to students would not be affected.
The average in-state tuition and fees at four-year public colleges this school year rose 8.3 percent and with room and board now exceed $17,000 a year, according to the College Board.
The response to Obama's plan wasn't all negative.
In Missouri, where Gov. Jay Nixon has proposed a 12.5 percent funding cut for higher education in the coming fiscal year, Obama's proposal could put even more pressure on public colleges and universities to limit tuition increases. By state law, schools must limit such increases to the annual inflation rate unless they receive permission for larger ones. Nixon has warned schools that he doesn't want to see a tuition increase of more than 3 percent, the latest Consumer Price Index increase.
"The president's message isn't inconsistent with the agenda that we've been pursuing here in Missouri," said Paul Wagner, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Higher Education. "It's good to see him put the focus on the same things."