Tuition freezes at American colleges have long been appealing, particularly in times of economic trouble. But an article in Inside Higher Ed indicates that they might not really work:

Tuition freezes have long had political appeal, and a plan to halt hikes for a second consecutive year in Missouri has been met with predictable applause from students and their families. But even supporters of tuition freezes within higher education concede they are unsustainable. Historic trends suggest a few years of stable tuition can lead to dramatic single-year increases.

This is because a tuition freeze is not a real policy decision; it’s just a delay to allow colleges to avoid making tough decisions. What’s more, it’s apparently a delay designed to impose higher tuition on students in the future.

The famed recent tuition freeze in Missouri, for instance, is just a deferment. Missouri law requires public colleges to obtain permission from the commissioner of higher education if they want to increase tuition more than the rate of inflation. But the freeze allows schools to improve normal (sub-inflationary) increases, but not charge students for the increase. But the schools have still made the increase, and next year’s tuition increase will be based on the new rate, not the older tuition cost students for which students are actually billed.

While it may make sense to consider tuition freezes as a stop-gap measure during a recession, the trouble is that universities can freeze tuition but they can’t freeze the cost of anything else, resulting in very unfair compromises made across the university to allow for the tuition freeze. Sometimes schools have to cut stuff to maintain that tuition freeze. According to the article:

“It gets to the point at which the cleaning lady at the university is being furloughed to support some people who could pay a little bit more tuition,” said Marcelo Cardarelli, an assistant professor of medicine [at the University of Maryland, Baltimore]. “It’s a trade. Aren’t you being unfair to equally poor people? Who’s paying for this? Somebody’s paying for it. No free lunch, that’s for sure.”

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer