Tuition freezes, where a college, or more often a state system, agrees to keep tuition at the same level for several years, is a popular tactic for colleges to use in times of economic problems for families. It generates press attention and makes the college appear sympathetic to the interests of struggling families.

And, indeed, colleges might really be sympathetic to struggling families, but the tuition freezes don’t really work to make college affordable, according to an article by Joni Finney at the Quick and the Ed:

It seems like tuition “freeze” proposals are gaining popularity again. We’ve been down this road before. Several states froze tuition in the early 1990s (Virginia, California, Washington, etc.) and they failed, in the long run, to make higher education affordable. These gimmicks fail to increase state investment in higher education and they don’t prevent larger-than-average tuition increases after the freeze is lifted. The only good… coming out of tuition freezes are for currently enrolled students; a brief respite from years of price increases that exceed growth in inflation and family income. Unfortunately this respite comes at the expense of passing on larger increases to students in the next incoming class.

The reason college tuition increases, after all, is due to declining state funds for public instruction. That’s a real problem that might benefit from a real, serious conversation about how public higher education is here to do.

That’s a conversation worth having. Tuition freezes only allow state officials and higher education institutions to kick the can further down the road, mostly by instituting huge tuition hikes once the freeze is over, and avoid deal with the structural problems in higher education.

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