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.
His blue eyes looked out the window then focused on me.
"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."
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.
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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
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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.