One of the great perks of being a professor in the United States is that your offspring are able to receive cut-rate or sometimes free tuition not only at the institution where you are teaching but at other colleges, writes Lucy Hodges.
The benefit is seen as a way to supplement the salaries of academics who earn less than they would in the private sector. But the federal government's Office of Management and Budget has become interested in the practice because universities are passing on some of the cost of such discounts to the American taxpayer.
A new regulation is expected to be published shortly which would prevent universities from claiming the subsidy as research expenses. Institutions opposed the change but realised it was difficult to justify the practice politically.
"Not only is the average Joe paying to send his own kid to college, but he's subsidising the college educations of the children of these highly paid researchers," said Leonard Minskly, executive director of the National Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest.
An investigation by the General Accounting Office, a quasi-independent body funded by Congress, showed that four top universities have charged the government more than $17 million since 1991 to pay for the tuition of the families of academics engaged in federal research.
The four universities were the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Chicago, Stanford University in California and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. These four were chosen because they receive the most federal grant money.
But many other universities do likewise. What annoys the public is that academics are comparatively well off. A Harvard professor earns about $90,000, and professors at other private universities earn only a little less.
In the study of the universities above, it was found that one-fifth of the academics whose relations' tuition was covered by the government were being paid more than $100,000 a year. More than one-half made more than $50, 000.