Earl F. Cheit, an educator who in 1970 wrote a sobering, influential report saying that two-thirds of the colleges and universities in the United States were in or near grave financial difficulty, died on Aug. 2 at his home in Kensington, Calif. He was 87.
The University of California, Berkeley, where he was a longtime administrator and professor,announced the death, giving the cause as cancer.
Dr. Cheit’s 250-page report, titled “The New Depression in Higher Education” and sponsored by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, examined 41 private and public colleges and universities in 21 states and the District of Columbia. Based on research Dr. Cheit (pronounced “chite”) directed, it found that 70 percent of these were either in financial difficulty or “headed for trouble.”
The analysis was particularly jolting because it came as baby boomers were flocking to campuses, which had expanded to meet the demand. Research at universities had grown exponentially as course offerings and majors increased.
The reason for alarm, Dr. Cheit wrote, was that costs faced by colleges were rising at a faster rate than income. He said that if the institutions were to prosper, federal and state governments would have to contribute substantially more funds. At the same time, the report said, colleges and universities needed to cut costs and raise tuition.
The findings were the basis of a front-page article in The New York Times and the subject of dismay in a Times editorial. Academic papers still cite the study.
“The future capacity of higher education to serve the country’s youth, and the nation itself, is in jeopardy at the very moment when its top priority ought to be the costly unfinished task of extending equal educational opportunities to the poor and deprived,” the editorial in The Times said.
In a two-year follow-up study, in which Dr. Cheit participated, universities and colleges were said to have brought their finances into better balance and achieved “a fragile stability.” But the study warned that they were still “living on borrowed time.”
Over the next 40 years, pessimism proved more than justified. The cost of tuition, room, board and fees increased at greater than the rate of inflation at both public and private colleges. State-run institutions endured repeated cutbacks in funding by legislatures, while private ones had to discount the list price of tuition selectively for families who could not or would not pay it.
Part of the solution was round after round of cost-cutting. Colleges fired professors, hired part-time replacements and shut facilities. More recently, some have turned to online courses to reach more students more cheaply.
But a huge gap remained. That was filled by student loans, which theConsumer Financial Protection Bureau, an independent federal agency, estimates now exceed $1 trillion. In the years after the report, politicians debated whether to increase grants or loans to meet college students’ needs, and loans won out.
“We rely on debt by default, as it is the only way to fill the gap between family resources, need-based grants and rising college prices,” David W. Breneman, an economist at the University of Virginia, wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002.
Earl Frank Cheit was born in Minneapolis on Aug. 6, 1926, but considered Hague, N.D., the wheat and cattle town where he grew up, his real birthplace. “My mother went to Minneapolis because there was no doctor in Hague,” he told The Times in 1970.
He graduated from Hague High School in a class of eight and went on to earn undergraduate and law degrees, as well as a doctorate in economics, from the University of Minnesota. His thesis sought to disprove the commonly held belief that generous compensation for workers injured on the job would result in “malingering.” While at the university, he supported himself as a copy boy for The Minneapolis Star, a short-order cook and a busboy at a hospital.
After getting his Ph.D. in 1954, he taught at St. Louis University in the mid-1950s, then joined Berkeley as a visiting associate professor of economics and a research economist at the university’s Institute of Industrial Relations. He later became its director. His writing further explored compensation for occupational injuries and addressed social issues like increasing women’s presence in the work force.
Dr. Cheit was twice dean of the Haas School of Business at Berkeley, from 1976 to 1982 and in the 1990-91 academic year. When the campus erupted in a so-called free speech protest in 1964, he was elected to an emergency committee of the academic senate. The next year, he was named executive vice chancellor of the campus.
In an interview with The Times in 1968, Dr. Cheit attributed the protest, a precursor to campus demonstrations around the country, to “underadministration.” He said not enough money was available under the budget to establish channels for student and faculty advice to be heard.
Dr. Cheit is survived by his wife of 63 years, the former June Doris Andrews; his daughters, Danielle Cheit and Julie Ross; his sons, David and Ross; and three grandchildren.