On Monday, April 14, 2014, the Lumina Foundation convened a group of opinion leaders in Washington, D.C., to discuss college affordability, federal student loan policies and the role of states in supporting public colleges and universities (The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Paying for College: Experts Gather in Search of New Models,” April 15, 2014).
Unfortunately, the experts came up empty.
One commentator noted that “affordable” does not necessarily mean “cheap.” Another touted the merits of a net-price calculator designed to show the number of years after graduation at which “the benefits of college outweigh the cumulative costs.” A third suggested that greater numbers of women and minorities should choose more lucrative majors.
I hope the Lumina Foundation did not overly deplete its endowment to pay for these platitudes and in-the-box thinking.
There is no shortage of commentary regarding the problems of higher education. Too often, however, the wrong people are in the conversation. It’s a waste of time to attempt to convince people of the righteousness of your position if the people to whom you are speaking already agree with you – and if your arguments aren’t precise, you can actually do your cause damage by providing the other side with free ammunition.
By way of example, Suzanne Mettler, a professor of government at Cornell University, has recently written a book with the provocative title of Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream. Essays drawn from the book appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education on March 7, The New York Times on March 1, and a news article on the book was in the Epoch Times on March 31.
For the past three weeks, we have been considering one of the biggest problems facing the U.S. today: the astronomical increase in the price of public higher education that has seriously impacted access for an increasing number of students now in the K-12 pipeline, coupled with growing concerns by parents and prospective students that the quality of the undergraduate experience at these public institutions has fallen, despite the rise in price.
Now, in Part 4, we will consider some possible solutions – but a warning: these solutions are much easier to identify than they will be to implement. The question will be whether the public’s interest in a college education that is both affordable and high quality will prevail over a higher education establishment that wants the status quo (even as it continues to lobby for larger state appropriations).
This is the third part of a conversation about what has gone wrong with public higher education. In Part 1, we considered some metrics that demonstrate the extent of the problem:
- Low graduation rates at most public universities and colleges;
- Insufficient funds to offer a quality educational experience;
- Rising levels of deferred maintenance of campus buildings and infrastructure;
- A focus on graduate education and research at the expense of serving the undergraduate population;
- Diversion of scarce instructional funds to support Division I athletics;
- A steep decline in affordability because of rapidly rising tuitions (public university tuition and fees have risen by more than 70 percent in just the past five years in Arizona, Georgia and Washington state – Morning Edition, National Public Radio, March 18, 2014).