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The boards of trustees and directors who oversee America’s colleges and universities think higher education has gotten too expensive—just not at their own institutions.

University of Virginia (Photo by Rex Hammock)

In a finding that suggests there’s little sense of urgency among governing boards to rein in the cost of college, more than half of 2,500 board members surveyed said higher education is too pricey. But nearly two-thirds contended that their own schools charge just about the right amount.

Nearly half said their institutions are already doing everything they can to stay affordable.

College costs have jumped 440 percent in the last 25 years, or three times the rate of inflation, outpacing even the spiraling cost of health care. Household income during that period rose only about 150 percent. At many universities, the increases have accelerated since the 2008 economic downturn.

Yet there is “a major gap” between how board members view the problem and how the public sees it, says Susan Whealler Johnston, chief operating officer of the Association of Governing Boards of University and Colleges, or AGB, which conducted the survey.

The disconnect comes at a time when governing boards appear to be asserting greater authority over the university administrations they oversee.

The board of visitors at the University of Virginia, for example, ignited a firestorm this year when it tried to remove the president for not moving fast enough in some areas. And while the decision was reversed, it was the latest battle between university administrators and boards of directors and trustees, who have also clashed in Iowa, Louisiana, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas and elsewhere.

The governing panels of private universities are elected by alumni or self-perpetuating, while those of public institutions are generally appointed by governors and legislatures.

Half are businesspeople, 25 percent are professionals and 16 percent are working or retired educators, according to a separate survey that the AGB released last year.

Nearly a third receive no financial training, and more than a quarter admit that they do not undertake much budgetary or financial oversight, the earlier survey found.

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Jon Marcus writes and edits stories about, and helps plan coverage of, higher education. A former magazine editor, he has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Wired, Medium.com...

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