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Washington University of St. Louis, Bristol Palin, and priorities in higher ed

Posted by Jesse Singal  January 26, 2011 02:31 PM

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Washington University of St. Louis probably knew it was in for some controversy when it approved the student treasury approved a student group's request to pay $20,000 or so to have Bristol Palin come and speak about abstinence. But the timing was really, really bad, because just a week ago the school announced a 3.9% bump in tuition.

Things get uglier when you read the provost's letter to students and parents announcing the increase:

Throughout the University, we have tightened our budgets and searched for efficiencies, while leaders in both the central administration and the schools have worked hard to cut and contain costs. Following a year of flat administrative salaries, raises for this past year were kept small as we instituted other cost-saving measures,such as important energy-saving technologies and programs.

Now, it wasn't as though the school's administrators selected and paid Palin — a student group did (after gaining approval from the student treasury organization), and will presumably be using funds raised from the student activity fee each student pays. But still — tough times are tough times. If the university is struggling financially, surely there's an argument that neither administrators nor students should be able to throw this much money at a speaker.

Wash U. is hardly alone in this sort of lavishness, of course. It reflects a new, disturbing trend among colleges — particularly big-name ones. When it comes to cost-control, tweaks to everything from custodians' benefits to adjunct's salaries to tuition are on the table. Everything, that is, except big, attention-grabbing facilities and speakers.

In short, it seems that schools are okay with sending students deeper and deeper into debt. They're not okay with giving up the perks that constitute the arms race to attract the most attractive — and richest, most able to pay — students.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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