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May 21, 2014

ANOTHER VIEW: If Purdue can freeze tuition...

College costs have risen so fast for so long — from about $1,600 a year at a four-year public college in 1973 to more than $18,000 in 2013 — that schools brag when tuition rises by less than the customary amount.

Last fall, a trade group for private colleges crowed about a hike of 3.6 percent, in a time of dormant inflation. Public colleges and universities boasted that tuition and fees rose at “the slowest rate in over 30 years.”

You’d think that freezing tuition or — heaven forbid — cutting it was impossible.

In fact, it isn’t. Just ask Mitch Daniels, a former federal budget director and Indiana governor who froze tuition at Purdue University after taking over as president in January 2013.

Today, Daniels will ask trustees to continue the freeze into a third year. In-state students will pay $10,000 through the 2015-16 school year and out-of-staters $28,794.

This, says Daniels, “turned out not to be terribly hard to do.” He asked school leaders to shift their thinking. “Instead of asking our students’ families to adjust their budgets to our desired spending, let’s try to adjust our spending to their budgets,” he told the editorial board.

There was no secret sauce, just a little sensible pruning that would be ordinary in the business world but seems alien in much of academia, where a steady flow of federal aid guarantees a steady flow of students at seemingly any price. Never mind that they’re left mired in debt, much of which will never be repaid, burdening the students, their families, taxpayers and the economy all at the same time.

Among the cost-cutting measures Purdue has adopted:

• It added higher-deductible health care plans that save the school money and make employees more cost-conscious.

• It combined some administrative jobs and eliminated others.

• It cut food service costs by moving to volume purchasing and hiring part-time students to do some jobs held by full-time employees.

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