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Derrick Z. Jackson

Recession? Not for college presidents

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / December 6, 2008
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MORE SPECTACULAR than finally seeing GM, Ford, and Chrysler grovel before Congress would be watching the nation's college presidents on bended knee. Shaming auto execs out of corporate jets and into hybrids should be a mere prelude to defanging the campus gargoyles, ripping down the ivy, and cutting through the fog of pomp, circumstance, and omnipotence. As Congress scurries to save Detroit, college CEOs are overseeing the tragic diminution of the American Dream.

This week, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, the nonpartisan think tank on state and national education issues, released a scathing report that found that college tuition and fees have skyrocketed in the last quarter century 439 percent, three times the rise in median family income in the same time period.

The rise of college costs surpassed even the 251 percent hike in medical care costs. In the 1999-2000 school year, the cost of four-year public college represented 18 percent of median family income for the middle quintile, 23 percent for the lower-middle quintile, and 39 percent for the lowest income quintile. Those respective figures are now 25 percent, 33 percent, and 55 percent. They account for grants and scholarships.

We've long been told not to spend more than 30 percent of income on housing. Yet college has become another house in our house of cards. The supposed vehicle of class uplift is now quicksand as total student debt has more than doubled in the last decade from $41 billion to $85 billion. The politically correct sloganeering about race and class diversity is a lie. Universities actually give more aid to the richest families. A student from a family making $100,000 or more receives an average grant of $6,200. A student from a family making between $40,000 and $59,999 receives an average grant of $5,500. A student coming out of poverty (under $20,000 parent income) receives only $4,700.

Patrick Callan, the National Center president, said in news reports that if this trend continues "another 25 years," college will be unaffordable. That is too charitable. For a personal perspective, my dad and my mom put me through the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the mid 1970s. My dad, a welder of hot-water heaters and auto frames, was the breadwinner, working double shifts to get me through school on a salary then of $18 an hour. My public college now costs roughly 10 times more today than three decades ago. Is anybody aware of assembly-line welders making $180 an hour?

Having spent many years as a part-time college professor, I have often advocated for resources for these institutions that are complex villages and cities unto themselves. But too many universities are more the Roman empire than the laboratory for the 21st century, throwing scholarships at athletic specimens while bankrupting lunch-pail geniuses, spending lavishly at the administrative level while slashing the library. Then, when you read the recent Chronicle of Higher Education report that found that one-third of public university presidents make more than $500,000, and that the number of private university presidents who make $500,000 and more rose by 10 percent - led by the $2.8 million compensation package of Suffolk University's David Sargent - you know something is horribly askew at these alleged nonprofits. The president of the United States makes $400,000 a year.

President-elect Obama says he is attuned to this, yet his first major statement about colleges after the election was to support a college football playoff for the national title. This was obviously half in jest, but unfortunately fit perfectly with the Roman side of our cultural priorities. The first act of his education secretary ought to be Capitol Hill hearings to grill college presidents on costs. But how heavy would such a grilling be?

The third-leading category of contributions to the Obama campaign was education, at $19 million. Obama the Democrat collected 12 times more money from education than Republican presidential candidate John McCain. Overall, the Democrats raked in $41.6 million from education compared with $8.7 million for the Republicans.

Getting auto execs out of corporate jets is important. Getting college presidents out of their gilded age is even more critical to the future of America.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

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