Don Heller, Director for the Center of the Study of Higher Education at Penn State.
Don Heller, Director for the Center of the Study of Higher Education at Penn State. - 
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Kai Ryssdal: Anybody who's ever tried to figure out student loans and financial-aid packages knows that the high finance of higher education can be opaque. We called Don Heller at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University to talk about that. Whether the recession might make the system more forthcoming. And what, exactly, that tuition check pays for.

DON HELLER: Part of it is certainly paying for my salary as a professor at the university. It's paying for the buildings, it's paying for the president. At some universities you may even be subsidizing the athletic department and the football coach a little bit.

Ryssdal: Are parents, and I guess to some extent, kids, really thinking about the nicer dorms and the great athletic facilities. Or do they just want the diploma and the education and then to get out there in the working world?

HELLER: The whole issue about the amenities in higher education, everybody loves to talk about the climbing walls, and things like that, and the dorms that are so much nicer than when the parents when to college. All of those things are receiving a huge amount of scrutiny, and I don't think there's any question that there's a movement on to look at whether we really need to have the sort of gold-plated and even silver-plated type of amenities that many colleges provide. I know in my state in Pennsylvania, and other states, there's been a movement at trying to start up a sort of no-frills, low-cost public university that would provide a very basic education, give people what they need, so that they can attain a bachelor's degree without all the frills. And hopefully at a much lower cost.

Ryssdal: With the economy being the way it is, though, and with people paying more attention to where their money is going, is that going to create a drive for more transparency among institutions of higher education?

HELLER: Well, I think Kai, in the last few years there's been a movement towards more transparency. Certainly the economic situation has probably speeded this up a little bit. But with all the rises in tuition prices we've seen in the last couple of decades, there has been movement in the last few years to try to make the whole pricing of tuition and college education in general more transparent for students and parents. So that is something that is making worked on. And as I said, I believe it's being pushed forward even more by the economic situation. And the concerns that students and parents have about getting their money's worth out of their tuition dollars.

Ryssdal: Let me ask you the price-elasticity question. Given that we are in a recession, many, many things out there are getting cheaper, consumers simply aren't willing to pay what's being asked. Is there, do you think, a chance that tuitions might be coming down on average?

HELLER: I would say that there is a very, very slim chance that tuitions will actually come down. What we are seeing are announcements from universities, both public and private, that what they're trying to do is moderate their tuition increases for the fall. You know, the last two decades we've had increases at both public and private universities of about twice the rate of inflation. And I think what you're going to see in the fall, when the numbers come out that show the averages across the whole nation, you're going to see a much more moderate rate of increase than in past years.

Ryssdal: Don Heller. He's the director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University. Professor Heller, thanks a lot for your time.

HELLER: Thank you, Kai.