Public university students are paying more and more—but not at Purdue

As the former governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels (L’79) knows how to balance a budget. Since becoming the president of Purdue University in 2013, he has frozen the land-grant school’s in-state tuition at $9,992 for seven straight years—an anomaly as the cost of higher education rises nationwide. And while about 70 percent of U.S. college students finance their education with loans, just 40 percent of Purdue undergraduates leave the school with debt.

Between 2007 and 2017, the average cost of attending a four-year public university rose by 28 percent to $19,000, accounting for inflation. When asked how his university has kept tuition stationary, Daniels told The Atlantic that “it’s easier to explain what we didn’t do.” He says Purdue didn’t seek additional state funding. “We didn’t shift from full-time faculty and fill the ranks with cheaper, part-time adjunct faculty. We haven’t driven up our percentage of international or out-of-state students,” he explained. The university even decreased textbook and food service prices.

Daniels and Purdue ‘objects of curiosity and even wonderment’

Daniels, The Atlantic writes, “is notoriously tight with a dollar” and surrounded himself with colleagues who have a history of budgeting, like Michael B. Cline, the former head of the state’s transportation department, and Chris Ruhl, Indiana’s former state budget director. Daniels also found ways to cut back on small things around campus—for instance, eliminating landlines in residence halls and digitizing payroll.

Daniels and Purdue, as a result, have become “objects of curiosity and even wonderment in the world of higher education.” The flat tuition has attracted more students and garnered more donations from delighted alumni. The university’s treasurer and chief financial officer estimates that increased enrollment alone has brought in $100 million in additional revenue, enabling the school to increase faculty pay, hire more faculty members, maintain a low student-to-teacher ratio, and construct new buildings.

There are some critics on campus, however. “The freeze is a marvelous admissions marketing tool,” David Sanders, a biological sciences professor, told The Atlantic. But surging enrollment “puts a lot of stresses on the city and the campus,” he said. On top of that, “there’s far more competition between faculty and between departments” for resources—“the institution is less collegial.”

Still, Daniels says his approach is in keeping with the mission of a land-grant school founded “to democratize higher education.” That goal also is driving Purdue’s efforts to increase the share of underrepresented minority students on campus, which has been static at 10 percent. To that end, Purdue is sponsoring high schools in large Indiana cities, hoping to build a stronger pipeline of potential students. “We couldn’t wait on the public high schools to catch up to us,” says Daniels. “My dream is that we can slip a Purdue scholarship in with each diploma.”

The Atlantic
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