Daniels seeks ‘value’ for college education at Purdue, elsewhere


By Paige Clark

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Mitch Daniels sat casually at the circle table near the bay window in his office. He pushed up the sleeves on his crisp white button-up shirt with “Purdue” written above the left breast. He laced his fingers together and placed them on the arm of the simple, wooden chair.

Purdue University plans to freeze tuition for a third year in a row based on a recommendation from President Mitch Daniels. File photo, TheStatehouseFile.com.
Purdue University plans to freeze tuition for a third year in a row based on a recommendation from President Mitch Daniels. File photo, TheStatehouseFile.com.
His blue eyes looked out the window then focused on me.timthumb.php-24

“What can I do for ya?” he asked. The former governor raised his eyebrows with curiosity as he placed his own silver tape recorder on the wooden table between us.

Here I was talking with a man who previously administered the federal government budget and ran the state of Indiana.

“I never saw myself as running the state, maybe the government of the state,” he chuckled. “I don’t think that’s the way to look at the job.”

“It’s the same way here,” he said, more serious now. His brows furrowed a little. “The university succeeds if the faculty and the students are given the tools and freedom and the support to be their best.”

Daniels, now president of Purdue University, is determined to change the way the entire nation looks at the value of a college education.

“I think it’s obvious the cost of college is getting beyond the range of too many families. If you can keep it more affordable you should” Daniels said. “I had a strong suspicion that the game was going to change, and it had. It has.”

Under Daniels, Purdue is enforcing a tuition cap. The tuition for the university has not increased in the last two years and, on Friday, the Purdue board endorsed Daniels’ plan to keep it flat for a third year. That will require cost cuts elsewhere.

By flatlining tuition through 2015-16, students who entered Purdue in the fall of 2012 will have completed a four-year period without any base tuition increase, the first such four-year stint since the period ending with the 1972-73 academic year.

“I had a sensation that we could do it if we really wanted to,” Daniels said, looking back at when the effort began. “I think this university really embraced that.”

Tuition for the 1996-1997 school year at Purdue was $3,208. Fifteen years later during the 2012-2013 school year, tuition was $8,893 – about a $5,600 increase.

Prior to 2012, the last year without a tuition increase at the university was 1976.

“We don’t want this place to be too expensive for able kids to attend. We want to keep the place in financial reach,” he said. “It’s gonna prove to be the smart thing to do.”

When he spoke about the tuition cap, excitement rose in his voice and he placed his elbows on the table between us and leaned forward as if he was letting me in on a grand secret.

“The goal always is to keep Purdue as affordable as possible. We’re not here to make money, but we are here to spend the money we do have on what is essential. And what is essential is teaching and research and in our case here at Purdue, engagement. Meaning service to the state, that’s part of our assignment as the land grant school,” Daniels broke off.

“You know what a land grant school is, right?” he asked. His head cocked a little to the side waiting for my answer.

Basically, a land grant school is any college or university built on property awarded to them by the state. Historically, these schools have a heavy focus on the sciences and agriculture, which rings true for Purdue.

I nodded to confirm I knew what a land grant school was and he continued.

“Those three things are what we’re here to do. Everything else is just there to support those things, and so everything else we have to look hard at,” he said. “If there’s a dollar we’re spending on something else, that could be used for the betterment of students or research or engagement, we will look to do that.”

The public agrees; Americans think college is too expensive. According to the Pew Research Center, 94 percent of parents say they expect their child to go to college, but 75 percent of Americans say it is not affordable.

“I did not know about the (tuition cap) until you just said something,” laughed sophomore Ameilia Morales, who was sitting with a friend who echoed her statement. “But I support any decision Mitch Daniels makes because I like him.”

What? Didn’t know about the tuition cap? She was not the only one though.

Purdue students, on average, graduate with about $27,000 in debt, which is similar to Indiana’s state average, according to The Project on Student Debt.

And debt matters to a graduate’s future happiness. A new poll by Gallup, in partnership with Purdue and the Lumina Foundation, measured the well-being and work engagement of more than 30,000 U.S. college graduates.

The study found that three times fewer graduates who took out between $20,000 and $40,000 in undergraduate student loan debt are thriving in their well-being compared with those with no school loan debt. And 26 percent of graduates with no debt have started their own business, compared with 16 percent for those with $40,000 or more.

“A lot of universities had found that they could keep raising and raising (tuition) and that the students would keep paying it or they would just borrow it,” Daniels said. “I just thought we should get off that escalator for the interest of our students.”

On average, public colleges and universities increase tuition 2.9 percent per year, and private school increases tuition an average of 3.8 percent per year.

“I think he’s doing good. I don’t really follow him as much as I probably should, but I don’t see a problem with him. The tuition phase is nice, so that’s kind of a plus,” said Morgan Thome with a little laugh. “I’m thankful for (the tuition cap). It’s nice to know (tuition) is not going to go up while I’m still here.”

She sat on a black metal bench under the shade of a cluster of trees. She was eating her lunch, and I felt bad approaching her, but as soon as I did, she flashed me a friendly smile.

Thome is a junior at Purdue majoring in industrial engineering.

“I know coming to Purdue in the engineering program that I am going to have a better chance of getting a job after graduation, so that kind of helps me with my decision,” Thome said as bells rang marking noon and she spoke a little louder. “But, I know I’m still going to be paying for it after graduation.”

Purdue tuition varies based on a student’s degree. Because Thome is an engineer major – a degree considered more valuable – she pays more than say, an education major.

In-state Purdue students pay $9,992 for tuition – $1.792 less expensive than the average of public colleges and universities. Out of state students, like Thome, on average, pay $28, 794.

Engineer majors, on average, pay an additional $1,800 more than other Purdue students. Technology and management majors pay additional fees too.

“Do more of what you’re good at. We’re good at this here,” Daniels said. “We should get even stronger in all the engineering disciplines and computer sciences.”

Daniels compared this philosophy to buying a car.

“You don’t buy anything else that way. Everything else you buy – food, cars, clothes – you buy based on value. That concept is now coming to higher education as it sooner or later had to,” Daniels said.

He gave more examples. And he said the idea of value is becoming more important to students and families.

“They’re not buying anymore, this idea, ‘Well if it cost more, then I guess it must be worth more.’ Just because the price is up here, maybe the value of it isn’t any higher or less.” Daniels said with his hands just as much as he did with words. “We are going to deliver higher education at the highest proven value.I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Daniel’s isn’t the only one who thinks the system is off. The Pew Research Center studies show that the majority of people do not think the higher education system is doing a good job providing value for their money. Only 5 percent rated the college value as excellent, 35 percent as good, 42 percent only fair, and 15 percent rated it poor.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott proposed the idea that degrees in higher demand should be cheaper, such as science, technology, engineering, math – also called the STEM areas.

But critics argue that jobs in high demand now might not be in twenty years.

“I don’t think they should pay more,” said Purdue junior David Shaugnessey. “It’s all one school.”

Shaugnessey stood outside a brick building handing out flyers for an upcoming event. The economics major transferred to Purdue last year after attending Ball State for one semester “to get that little P” on his diploma.

Emily Kuzmanoff’s views weren’t as black and white.

“I don’t think it is fair that they have to pay more money for their education, but it does kind of make sense because their education is more valued in the workforce,” said the Purdue freshman. “There are the perks and then there are the cons.”

“I don’t even know what I pay to go here,” he said. “It’ll all add up at the end.”

“Money is an issue for like everybody,” said Purdue freshman Emily Kuzmanoff. “I figured if I wanted to go to the place I really wanted to go I would just have to pay extra for it.”

There are grants and scholarships, which students apply for through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, called FAFSA. But it is getting to be a burden.

“FASFA didn’t really offer me anything. So my first year my parents were like ‘maybe you should try staying at home and going to Purdue Calumet. I tried it and I was like ‘You know what, I don’t care how much I have to pay, I want to go to the main campus like the feeling of being on campus and the food is really good,” Morales laughed.

According to The Project on Student Debt, 71 college students who graduated in 2010 had, on average, $29,400 in student debt or loans. Since 2008, the average amount of debt increased by six percent each year.

On average, 64 percent of Indiana college students have college debt. Purdue students fall slightly below the state’s average – 54 percent graduate with debt.

“Don’t point fingers. It’s not about blaming anybody,” Daniels said. “But let’s go make some improvements.”

But Daniels’ critics say he missed an opportunity to launch those improvements while he was governor. During that time, as the economy soured, the governor cut funding for K-12 schools and higher education, a move Democrats touted as evidence he didn’t care about education.

“The premise, first of all, is flawed,” Daniels started. “I want you to know that Indiana funded higher education better than almost any other state in America.”

He leaned back in his seat and crossed his legs. His blue eyes, once again, focused elsewhere.

During his time as governor, he oversaw budget cuts to higher education and signed a bill denying in-state tuition to undocumented immigrant children.

Both actions make sense for a Republican Governor. But a college president? Not so much.

There were many skeptics about Daniels taking over as head honcho at Purdue – especially since in his first two months, he made a $40 million cut to the budget, before deciding where the money would come from.

“Instead of forcing our families to adjust their budgets to our spending, why don’t we try adjusting out spending to their budgets?” Daniels said.

His gubernatorial administration is also criticized for implementing Common Core standards.

In 2010, the Indiana Board of Education – appointed by Daniels – started phasing in Common Core, which are standards developed by a group of state policy makers and have since been embraced by the federal government. Forty other states also adopted the Common Core standards. Since then, the standards have become increasingly controversial.

Daniels said he wouldn’t comment specifically on the Common Core issue but he did talk about taking risks. “My notion was go, bust your tail, do the best job you can, make all the change you can, then go back to private life or on to something else. Having done that I feel that anybody, whether they leave voluntarily – “ he pointed at himself and gave me a little half smile. “ – or involuntarily should at least for a long time refrain from commenting on things that relate to their last service”

There was a silence in the room for a moment.

“The only thing I’ll say is: I do think it’s important to know how students in your state or your school district are doing comparatively to students elsewhere,” he said. “I didn’t want a common curriculum; I wanted a common yard stick, so you don’t end up kidding yourself. The worse thing we can do in education is to mislead a young person. That is wrong and it is cruel.”

But the Daniel’s administration did fund full day kindergarten and tackle credit creep, with a focus on public state schools.

In March of 2011, Daniels signed a bill that eliminated excessive credits required to earn a college degree. Traditionally, students needed 120 credit hours for a bachelor’s degree and 60 for an associate’s degree.

At the time about 90 percent of Indiana public school majors exceeded those standards. The bill Daniel’s signed into law required state colleges and universities to justify their degree programs that exceed the 120 credit cap – Daniel’s attempt to help students graduate faster, to hopefully, lessen their debt.

Daniel’s also is working towards putting Purdue on a full year calendar so students can graduate sooner, alleviating some of their debt. Also, if students had the opportunity to take summer classes, they have more time to get an internship in the winter or spring, Daniels said.

“In these first couple years, I get a lot of invitations to go present” his ideas, Daniels said as he laced his fingers behind his head. He shifted in his chair and continued. “Part of it I think is ‘New Kid on the Block’. Also, though, we’re doing new things here at Purdue.”

Daniels, like his last job, has to travel to get his message out. Except now, it’s more nationally and globally focused.

“It’s a good change, frankly, to advertise Purdue,” Daniels said.

Now he advertises Purdue instead of advertising himself and his administration I thought.

“I really don’t (miss politics). I’ve been so lucky to lead different lives. I was involved in government as a young person, then I left it. I’m grateful for every day I spent in it,” Daniels said. “What I’m doing here is very different, but very exciting.”

When Daniels was governor, the idea of him running for President was thrown around, and it was a serious possibility.

But instead here he sat, the president of Purdue, not the United States, excited about his job.

He said he “enjoyed every minute” of being governor.

“We were still doing big things, even in years six, seven, and eight,” he said, focused on a memory. He talked about the “lame duck” period and how he did not want to end his time that way.

“The people in our administration, they really felt that they were part of something special,” Daniels said. “Indiana was a lot better place than when they found it.”

It was closing in on noon, Daniel’s sacred hour.

“No two days are quite the same,” he said. “If I’m not traveling, at noon I’ll go to the gym. That’s the one thing I try to protect.

“Monday I ran and lifted weights. Yesterday I swam a mile. Then I come back and eat at this table,” Daniels said as he tapped his pointer finger on the wooden table top.

Even with the clock ticking, he kept talking about this and that, including the food at the college

“Last night, I ate with three seniors that emailed me,” he said. “I really got to know them.”

Bur Morales said he’d never met the president. “The only time I’ve seen him is when he gave a speech,” she said, pausing to recall which speech. “But I’ve never seen walking around campus or anything.”

It makes sense. About 40,000 students are enrolled at Purdue. But then again, he was governor of Indiana – population 6 million.

If Daniels’ presidency at Purdue is anything like his time as governor, he will likely do the job he came to do and then move on to accomplish something else.

“It’s always good to leave a day too short,” he said, “than a day too late.”