An op-ed by Dean Bill Tallon, as posted in the Appleton Post Crescent on February 26, 2012

More and more often, the debate regarding the rising cost of a college education heats up. Over the past several decades, the costs have increased dramatically, and we’re forced to evaluate the cause.

Affordable higher education came to the forefront as an issue in the 1960s as part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs. The Higher Education Facilities Act of 1963 and the Higher Education Act of 1965 were the two major pieces of legislation that helped make a college education affordable for almost anyone who desired it. The results of those initiatives have included the development of a more educated citizenry and a workforce that lead the world in innovation, scientific breakthroughs and economic development.  Our society, lifestyle and products were the envy of the world, and many foreign countries attempted to model our success. A quality, affordable education became a cornerstone of the American dream.

Government funding for higher education has steadily decreased, leaving us at a 25-year low in higher education support. Many American families are finding it more difficult to afford a college education, even at state-supported institutions. What was once regarded as the “rite of passage” to a good job and career advancement is becoming increasingly more difficult to attain.

The results of ongoing cuts is that college education becomes more private good than public right.  With less government support, public colleges have been forced to increase tuition and fees, passing higher costs on to the consumer.

The funding model for public education institutions is simple.  There are three primary sources of revenue colleges use to fund operations: government subsidies, monetary donations and any investment income generated by those donations, and tuition and fees.  In the 1960s and 1970s, government sources provided 80 to 90 percent of funding.  Currently, the average is 20 to 30 percent.  This loss of government support for higher education has forced institutions to operate more like private colleges and fund their enterprises more from donations and investment income.  Unfortunately, most public colleges do not have the tradition of fundraising nor the endowments many private colleges have, forcing them to increase tuition and fees just to maintain their current level of operations.

The loss of government support for public higher education is bound to have other adverse effects beyond tuition increases, such as higher admission standards, which will reduce the number of students who are eligible to attend college, and fewer class offerings as institutions are forced to downsize.

Citizens need to understand that state and federal reductions in funding for higher education directly impact tuition costs at public universities. If funding solutions cannot be found, most low-income and even middle-income students will be priced out of their dream of a college education or be stuck with loan debt they can never repay.

As I watch my grandchildren grow, I wonder how their lives will evolve and if they will be able to achieve the standard of living of past generations. I was blessed to receive a quality, affordable public education. I only hope my grandchildren will have the same opportunity.