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 the presidents of public universities; they're already frustrated by increasing state budget cuts.
The reality is that simple changes cannot easily overcome deficits at many public schools, Illinois State's Al Bowman said.
He 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.
"Most people, including the president, assume if universities were simply more efficient they would be able to operate with much smaller state subsidies, and I believe there are certainly efficiency gains that can be realized," Bowman said. "But they pale in comparison to the loss in state support."
Bowman said the undergraduate experience can be made cheaper, but there are trade-offs.
"You could hire mostly part-time, adjunct faculty. You could teach in much larger lecture halls, but the things that would allow you 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, which is paid for by both tuition and state government dollars, 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.
"They really should know better," Young said. "This really is political theater of the worst sort."
Obama's plan would need approval by Congress, a hard sell in an atmosphere of partisan gridlock.
In his State of the Union address Tuesday, Obama described meeting with university presidents who explained how some schools curtailed costs through technology and redesigning courses to help students finish more quickly. He said more schools need to take such steps.
Obama said at Michigan that higher education has become an imperative for success in America, but the cost has grown unrealistic for too many families and the debt burden unbearable. He said states should properly fund colleges and universities.
"We are putting colleges on notice," Obama told an arena packed with cheering students. "You can't assume that you'll just jack up tuition every single year. If you can't stop tuition from going up, then the funding you get from taxpayers each year will go down."
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 is proposing to increase 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 goes directly to students and 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.
Rising tuition costs have been attributed to a variety of factors, among them a decline in state dollars and competition for the best facilities and professors. Critics say some higher education institutions are attempting to wait out the economic downturn and have been too reluctant to make large-scale changes that would cut costs such as offering three-year degree programs.
The federal government's leverage to take on the rising cost of college is limited because higher education is decentralized, with most student aid following the student.
The response to Obama's plan wasn't all negative. Many university presidents said they welcome a conversation about making college more affordable and efficient.
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."
Obama also wants to create a "Race to the Top" competition in higher education similar to the one his administration used on lower grades. He wants to encourage states to make better use of higher education dollars in exchange for $1 billion in prize money.
Obama is also pushing for more tools to help students determine which colleges and universities have the best value.