Given the interest in my post about the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, I took another look at the College Board’s table for in-state and out-of-state tuition at the flagship state universities in each U.S. state. I am amazed that states that have elected politically-conservative governors have managed to keep in-state college tuition charges for their flagships at apparently reasonable prices.

Here are the states with the ten lowest college tuition and fee charges for their flagship university:

  1. Wyoming
  2. Alaska
  3. Arkansas
  4. Montana
  5. Florida
  6. New Mexico
  7. Nevada
  8. Idaho
  9. Mississippi
  10. West Virginia

Here are the states with the highest charges for college tuition and fees at their flagship school.

  1. Pennsylvania
  2. New Hampshire
  3. Vermont
  4. Virginia
  5. Illinois
  6. Massachusetts
  7. New Jersey
  8. Michigan
  9. Minnesota
  10. California

Democrats serve as governors in six of the ten with the highest charges as well as two, Montana and West Virginia, among the ten that charge the least. Among the other five states led by a Democratic governor (Colorado, Delaware Hawaii, Missouri, New York and Washington), only New York charges residents less than $10,000 to attend its flagship state school. The rest charge at least $11,000.

There are several lines of reasoning behind tuition and fee increases at public colleges and universities. These include:

  • College students have their future ahead of them. They can borrow now and pay later.
  • Colleges can raise money privately and build endowments. Other public services cannot.
  • States cannot afford to tax all of their working citizens too highly for the services that fulfill needs for more people. Such services include law and public safety, mobility, public transportation, health care and K-12 education.

Tuition and fee increases are, in effect, a higher user fee charged to those who are using the services at the moment. A policy of imposing them on those who can best afford to pay them is fair, to a point.

Why would a fiscally conservative governor want to hold those increases down, if s/he could?

  • The parents who pay tuition and fees include likely voters. A tuition and fee increase can counteract any efforts the governor wants to put in place to hold down other taxes and fees to maintain popularity in the state.
  • The governor could seek to take more control over the budgets and the leadership of the schools as well as their business practices, all in the name of fiscal responsibility. This is obviously not popular with a college administration. It would prefer to set its own direction, even if that called for a larger tuition and fee increase than the governor wants.
  • The governor cares more about price than prestige. One thing that I noticed when I look at the lists of highest and lowest: the states that have the highest-ranked flagship state universities in media rankings (California, Illinois, Michigan and Virginia) are among those that charged the most. Among the flagship state schools that charged the least, only the University of Florida has ranked high in the same rankings.

What builds the prestige of a public college and university system?

  • A talented, and hopefully well-paid faculty;
  • Academic facilities that encourage the faculty to do their best work;
  • Willingness on the part of employers to hire its graduates; and,
  • Willingness on the part of industry and foundations to fund projects of mutual interest.

It’s very hard for a fiscally conservative governor to pull back on prestige when a school has established it over time. But s/he can propose to subsidize it for less, justifying that the users are willing to pay more, and that the school can attract future users who are also willing to pay. Judging by the selectivity of the higher-ranked state schools–they typically admit less than half of those who apply for their freshman classes–this practice appears to be working.

If I had to find a school that hit the best balance of price and prestige among the flagship schools, at least for residents, it would have to be the University of Florida. Coincidentally, it is also the only public university to have won national championships in football and men’s basketball since 2000. I have to imagine that the students who go there are relatively happy. Freshman retention is around 96 percent; more than two thirds of the freshmen who entered in 2010 graduated on time. 

Yet students who go to the University of Florida “pay” in some ways for the low price. The university is capable of housing only 23 percent of its students, very low, even for a state university with over 33,000 undergraduates. It asks some incoming freshmen to consider January entry, so that they are not on campus during the fall, while housing could be utilized during the summer.  The student-faculty ratio is 21 to 1, high even for a very big school, while 16 percent of all undergraduate classes have more than 50 students. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has about the same number of undergraduates, has a lower student-faculty ratio of 18 to 1, though a fifth of its classes will have more than 50 students. But it is also capable of housing half of them, more than twice what Florida can do. 

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign might be perceived as a “better” or “more prestigious” state university than the University of Florida by members in the academic community. It ranks higher in the “repetitional surveys” completed by educational leaders and school counselors in U.S. News. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign also has a larger endowment than the University of Florida ($2.7 billion in FY 2014 vs $1.5 billion in the same year) according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

But I bet that if I were to meet Rick Scott, the Governor of Florida, one of the more conservative governors in the U.S., he would probably tell me that his flagship university was doing just fine. The prospects for added prestige might not be worth the costs, in dollars and political chits, of raising tuition and fees. If I were to meet Bruce Rauner, the Governor of Illinois, he would probably tell me that the reputation of the University of Illinois must be protected at all costs, even its students and their families had to pay for it.





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