Imagine that there's a product or a service that has gone up in
price by 239 percent over the past fifteen years and whose cost
continues to increase well ahead of the rate of inflation. Imagine
further that the company that produces the product or service blames
consumers for the steep price increases. Would reporters accept such
an excuse at face value? The CEO of the company would surely be seen
sweating before the cameras of 60 Minutes or getting stern lectures
from Nightline's Ted Koppel, right?
Not if the product is a college education.
The same reporters who are quick to expect the worst -- and demand
government action -- when businesses raise prices show a curious
lack of curiosity about the shocking rise in college tuition rates
over the past several years. In stories about tuition hikes,
reporters almost never question the price increases. And they never,
ever, bring up the explanation many conservatives and economists
point to: government education subsidies help cause the price hikes.
The most recent example of this lack of skepticism came when
President Clinton proposed a $1,500 tax credit for students in their
first two years of college. On June 4, the day Clinton announced his
proposal, no network report even hinted that it might cause tuition
increases. CBS's Rita Braver, for example, merely said that it was
"aimed at attracting all students into post-high school education."
Peter Jennings called it "the latest giveaway in presidential
politics." (That's what they always call tax cuts.) Jennings did
point out in the next story that "college expenses are growing at
twice the rate of inflation." But he didn't ask why or suggest that
some argue Clinton's proposal would add to the problem.
This is part of a long pattern in network reporting on higher
education. Media Research Center analysts reviewed all 23 stories
about higher education financing on the ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC news
shows between June 1, 1995 and June 1, 1996. No reporter in any of
the stories mentioned the argument that federal aid helps fuel the
escalation in tuition costs.
To be sure, reporters often do point out that tuition costs are
increasing dramatically. Many of the stories on higher education
focus on families trying to deal with such costs. ABC's Tyler
Mathison, on the July 12, 1995 Good Morning America, reported
that with costs so high, "it's no wonder more and more American
families are borrowing to pay the bills." Many stories are helpful
to consumers by pointing out which colleges are the best buys.
But reporters rarely ask why college costs are rising. And when
they do, they accept, without challenge, answers they would never
accept from industry. Example: CBS's Susan Spencer, on the May 2,
1996 48 Hours. A college administrator told her that he would like
to cut costs, but it might hurt the reputation of his school. "So
most colleges aren't even trying to cut tuition," Spencer reported.
"People might think the quality of education had been cut as well."
CBS had a different attitude toward the recent gasoline price
increases. Dan Rather wondered: "Is it the free market at work, the
law of supply and demand? Or, is it greed, or something more
sinister?" The networks have also demanded explanations for price
increases of other products, such as gasoline or breakfast cereals.
But the ivory tower is above such questioning.
This omission leads to biased reporting of education policy
proposals. CNN's Bobbie Battista, reporting on a speech by First
Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton for the June 1, 1995 Inside Politics,
said: "Mrs. Clinton also tweaked those who benefited from the U.S.
education system and now want to cut it...She didn't name names, but
presidential candidate Phil Gramm, who wants to abolish the
Department of Education, went to college thanks to
government-sponsored loans." And in hundreds of stories over the
past year, Bill Clinton repeated his claim that cutting federal aid
to students was "extreme" without being asked why taxpayers must
continue to finance higher education's largesse.
Only one network reporter even suggested the tuition price
increases may not be justified. Former CBS This Morning co-host
Harry Smith, on March 12, pointed out that "the private sector, in
terms of business out there, has done all this cutting over the last
ten years or so to become more competitive." He asked consumer
reporter Hattie Kauffman: "Are colleges doing that at all?" But even
Smith didn't point out the argument that colleges and universities
are shielded from such efficiency because of government subsidies.
Had he read an article by John Hood of the John Locke Foundation,
in the May, 1995 issue of Reason, he might have. "Is land for
classrooms that much more expensive? Is there a shortage of people
becoming professors, bidding up the wages of those currently in
colleges and universities? Do books cost more than they used to?"
Hood asks. "The short answer is maybe -- but the cost increase in
higher education far outpaces increases in any of those
According to Hood, there are so many government subsidies at even
private colleges and universities that "tuition and fees have only
the murkiest relationship to the costs of providing higher
education. The 'costs' themselves are essentially arbitrary." Hood
explains that federal aid is given to a student based on how much
costs exceed the student's "expected family contribution." Since
colleges and universities know the average expected family
contribution, they can increase tuitions and make more students
eligible for aid. "Families will pay more, but a good portion of the
tuition hike will be picked up by the government. Hence, colleges
and universities can get more money for providing exactly the same
Proof? Hood looks at history. "During the 1970s, the real-dollar
value of government assistance to higher education, adjusted for the
number of full-time students, fell slightly. So did real tuition,
room, and board charges for both public and private colleges," he
claims. "Throughout the 1980s, however, government assistance per
full-time student rose significantly (10 percent, not including
loans), accompanied by a 27 percent real rise in public college
charges and a staggering 50 percent real rise in private college
charges." He points out that revenue from Pell grants rose by more
than 25 percent between 1985 and 1992 and that state level grants
rose by 15 percent. All the while, college administrators were
complaining about "cutbacks" in federal aid and using that as an
excuse to raise tuition.
But network reporters don't challenge college administrators
about their continuous price increases. Apparently, when it comes to
higher education, greed is good, or at least not worthy of