Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Public Policy (PhD)

Degree Level



Political Science


Michael T. Miller

Committee Member

David G. Gearhart

Second Committee Member

Todd S. Shields


Autonomy, Higher education access, Land-grant universities, Tuition policy


Since the 1980's, the tuition at public colleges and universities has increased at a rate far beyond that of normal inflation. During this period, many public institutions have increased their tuitions exponentially, while others have chosen or been able to retain stable and relatively inexpensive tuition rates. The aim of this study was to examine what policies and external trends are responsible for public institutions having such wide variation in their tuition costs. Therefore, this study isolated one type of public institution, which was land-grant universities, that have a mission and tradition of providing affordable educations to examine the causes of this wide level of tuition variation. Data for this study were collected by utilizing a mixed methods approach that focused on the characteristics of specific institutions. A quantitative examination was conducted to evaluate the effects of certain external aspects of tuition setting. Also, a qualitative policy and content analysis was conducted to evaluate the causes, both policy and otherwise, for the variation at both the institutional and state level. Combined, the findings of this study indicated some significant, and some less than significant, factors that were directly linked to tuition setting and the tuition variation. Essentially, the research indicated that the tuition variation was the result of a variety of issues. The content and policy analysis of institutions with exceptionally high tuition rates revealed that their respective state legislatures and state coordinating boards had very little control over the tuition setting process. Conversely, universities with relatively low tuition rates had very little autonomy over tuition setting. Thus, institutional autonomy over tuition setting seems to be a major contributing factor to the wide range of tuition costs across the nation. The quantitative analysis was utilized to examine the effects of external aspects on the tuition rates of each state. The composition of each universities respective state's legislature, the quality of the institution as measured by U.S. News and World Report (USNWR), the geographic location of the university, and the percentage of each states budget dedicated to higher education were a few of the variables that were examined. Essentially, the research indicated that while some of the variables were either predictive or correlated, many were not. For instance, geographic location is a significant predictor of college costs as is the percentage of a state budget dedicated to higher education. Further, the partisan makeup, level of professionalism, or the amount of appropriations committed to higher education in each institution's respective state legislature was not predictive nor was institutional quality as measured by USNWR. Finally, the study demonstrated a frail and only marginally significant correlational linkage between college quality and costs. This study successfully indicated that state policies regarding institutional autonomy have a significant affect on college tuition rates. Essentially, the more autonomy and discretion that an institution had, the more likely it was to have significantly higher tuition costs. Further, the less tuition setting autonomy and discretion an institution had, the more likely it was to have lower tuition costs. Additionally, college tuition could be significantly predicted by both geographic location and the percentage of a state's budget dedicated to higher education. Finally, this study more-or-less discounted the conventional logic that price was positively correlated with quality as this study demonstrated a very frail and only marginally valid correlation between quality and tuition costs.