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2014 Archives

Tuition Politics


The following is from the August 12, 2014, edition of Inside Higher Ed. Michael K. McLendon, a professor of higher education policy and leadership at SMU, provided expertise for this story.

August 28, 2014

By Ry Rivard

Over much of the past half-century, state governors have helped keep public college tuition artificially low during gubernatorial election years, according to a new peer-reviewed article. But the study suggests more is at play than a governor's own career.

The study, published in the June issue of Empirical Economics by Kent State University Professor C. Lockwood Reynolds, found inflation-adjusted tuition is 1.5 percent lower in gubernatorial election years than in other years.

“If you’re a sitting governor up for re-election you would prefer that voters are receiving good signals about the state of the state,” Reynolds said. “And one of those might be tuition at a four-year institutions, because it’s announced pretty close to an election, and lots of people want to send their kids to college, and they probably don’t want to pay for it.”

For a natural control group, Reynolds, an economist, looked at private college tuition during the same period, from 1972 to 2003. It didn’t follow the same pattern as in-state tuition sticker prices at all. Instead, he found that private college tuition went up slightly more in gubernatorial election years than in non-election years, although the percentage increase was statistically insignificant. . . 

Michael K. McLendon, a professor of higher education policy and leadership at Southern Methodist University who has studied the interplay of politics and higher ed, called Reynolds’s paper a “a meticulous and creative undertaking.”

“Fifteen years ago, observers often asserted that higher education somehow was above the political fray – that economic and demographic conditions of states and characteristics of campuses alone drove tuition levels or state funding trends or the adoption of new kinds of financing and accountability policies,” he said in an email. “Today, numerous studies exist documenting the impacts of election cycles, gubernatorial leadership, and legislative representation on state and campus behavior.”

Reynolds’s paper is distinct in that it claims that governors “may be using their influence over tuition-setting in ways that are even more strategic and nakedly political than is commonly believed,” McLendon said.

Read the full story.

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