By Dan Primack
October 5, 2011

When will “The 99%” turn its attention away from Wall Street and toward the university?

In the weeks since Occupy Wall Street began, a clearer narrative is emerging. The protesters (mostly) aren’t asking that Goldman Sachs be tried for high crimes and misdemeanors or for the U.S. banking system to be dismantled. Instead, they are upset that the American Dream has become the province of the few, through little to no fault of the many. And Wall Street makes for an easy target.

But if protesters tire of Zuccotti Park, there is an even more idyllic setting for voicing their displeasure: The college campus.

Take a look at We Are the 99 Percent – a website on which protest sympathizers share their tales of economic hardship. Very few of them mention banks, or even bank bailouts. The vast majority of them, however, do mention college debt. For example:

According to The College Board, average annual in-state tuition and fees at four-year public universities increased by 72% over the past decade. Four-year private college tuition is up by more than 34% over the same time period, during which inflation rose only around 25%.

Where is the university’s responsibility to its customers? Hell, where is its responsibility to America?

Isn’t college designed to enhance a student’s future well-being and, in turn, that of society at-large? How did it get corrupted to the point where higher education is the cause, rather than the solution, to so many of our collective ills?

Carnegie Mellon recently announced the receipt of the largest gift in the school’s 111-year history: A $265 million donation from trustee William Dietrich. In a press release, CMU discussed how the money will be used to “support interdisciplinary education and research initiatives across the university and across the globe.”

No mention, of course, of using some of Dietrich’s generosity to reduce average tuition at CMU, which rose 4% over just the past year to a whopping $43,160 (not including fees, room or board). Or even to keep it static. Instead, it’s all about build, expand, rinse and repeat. After all, U.S. News & World Report doesn’t reward affordability.

I know that every school president in America will tell you that tuition and fees alone doesn’t cover a student’s actual cost, even for those students who pay a full boat. But part of the reason is that those same presidents have not felt compelled to keep those average costs from rising faster than inflation. Imagine a school announcing a tuition price freeze for one decade, in tandem with a freeze on non-vital building construction. My guess is that it could become a model for others, and a magnet for talented students who see someone finally taking their futures seriously.

We often hear politicians lament the rising cost of education, and see programs intended to help make college more affordable (usually in the form of loans or scholarships). But why so much emphasis on coupons rather than on the underlying product price? Particularly when that product is produced by tax-exempt entities that, in many cases, earn additional taxpayer subsidies in the form of research matching grants? I’m not necessarily advocating for price controls, but could we at least let some rhetorical pressure?

If not from our elected officials, then what about from “the 99%?” You’ve already identified the source of your misfortune. Why not demand that they do something about it?

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