Higher Education in America: A Way Forward

To change the conversation, colleges must actively and openly address society's concerns

It is becoming increasingly difficult to pick up a newspaper, open a magazine, or walk into a bookstore without being confronted with yet another screed about the problems of higher education in America, each one seemingly more shrill than the last. With book titles such as Academically Adrift, or American Higher Education in Crisis?, or Why Does College Cost So Much?, it is no wonder that the parents of a prospective college student are confused and frustrated as they enter the season of campus visitations.

By way of welcoming the start of college this fall, The New York Times recently devoted its entire Sunday magazine (Sept. 13) to a series of articles collectively entitled Collegeland. If anyone thought it was safe to go back into the academic waters, these articles will frighten them back to the beach before they get their ankles wet.

There is no question that problems abound in the world of American higher education; they are serious, and they need to be addressed. But the good news is that genuine efforts are under way at many colleges and universities to implement solutions to these problems. Not every college is deaf to the voices of criticism. Consider three of the most vexing concerns:

  1. College Costs Too Much: For the past 30 years, the sticker price of virtually all American colleges and universities has risen far more rapidly than has the Consumer Price Index, or any commodity in that index. But the rate of increase of the net price – the money actually paid by students and their families – has been much less. For example, the wealthiest private colleges and universities cover the full costs of students whose family incomes are lower than a set amount ($90,000 is a typical figure). Even among private colleges of modest wealth, the average net price today, adjusted for inflation, is actually less than it was 10 years ago. Pell Grants from the federal government, because they have increased in number and in value in recent years, now generally cover the full cost of community colleges for millions of low-income students.A college education is still an expensive investment, in both time and money, but the situation is improving, not getting worse. However, colleges contribute to the confusion by continuing to raise their sticker prices even as they discount those prices more than ever, in order to create larger pools of financial aid dollars. It’s no wonder parents are confused about college costs.
  1. College is Too Risky; Graduation Rates Are Too Low: Low graduation rates are indeed a serious problem, but this is not a new problem. Unlike most other countries, America does not force its young people into particular tracks based on their relative success on qualifying examinations. Countries that limit access to college or university to the highest achievers on entrance examinations have very high graduation rates – but only for a relatively small percentage of the college-age population. America believes in second chances, in “late bloomers,” in doorways of opportunity that stay open far longer than in most other countries. Unfortunately, the price of broader access is a higher rate of failure.But what’s different today is that the consequence of failing to complete college is far greater than it was 40 years ago, when college dropouts could still get well-paying jobs. And that places a burden on today’s colleges to do all they can to help students succeed – but without lowering academic standards.Here, too, we see wonderful examples of colleges that have accepted this challenge. To give just one example, the Accelerated Study in Associated Programs (ASAP) at community colleges in the City University of New York (CUNY) system have been credited with doubling the colleges’ traditionally low graduation rates – and many colleges and universities across the nation are implementing a broad range of strategies to increase student retention and graduation rates. These programs come at a cost, and therefore can conflict with efforts being made to reduce the price of higher education, but they are still cost-effective because the total cost per graduate is falling significantly.
  1. Colleges Don’t Prepare Students for the Marketplace: Surveys of business leaders by the American Association of Colleges and Universities show that while employers are generally satisfied with the skills of graduates in their particular disciplines – that is, engineers and accountants know their stuff – they are far less satisfied with general skills, such as communication, collaboration, dealing with people from different backgrounds, and the graduates’ general knowledge of the culture of business. Regrettably, this particular “skills gap” has resulted in a rising rate of job termination among college-educated Millennials. Moreover, as a consequence their dissatisfaction with the quality of recent hires, employers now often limit their search to employees with actual experience, a quandary for newly minted college graduates seeking their first job.The question of who prepares college students for employment has resulted in no end of finger pointing. Colleges note that, historically, they provided their graduates with general skills, and the employers trained them for the specific work they needed done. Employers say that whatever was historically true, they no longer are willing to invest in the costs of a lengthy period of training, but instead are looking for new employees to arrive already trained. The college graduates who are unable to secure a position that requires college-level skills are the victims of the standoff between colleges and employers.The solution is at hand, but colleges and universities have been slow to embrace it, because they will have to change some of their traditional ways of educating their students. Project-based learning, wherein groups of students, often from several disciplines, working with one or more faculty members on a real project that comes from nonprofits or for-profits in the external community, is a way for colleges to give the students valuable working experience before they graduate, even as they continue to earn academic credit. Colleges that have adopted this approach are finding their graduates to be considerably more marketable, and that result, in turn, attracts more entering students who (along with their families) want a good return on their educational investment – meaning a satisfying job that pays well.

Colleges and universities that actively and openly address the problems and concerns the broader society has with higher education in general can change the tone of the conversation from criticism (sometimes, actual hostility) to a point where higher education institutions and the broader society see each other as partners in preparing young people not just for employment but also to serve as leaders and change agents in an economy that continues to evolve at a rapid rate.

Roger Williams University, where I work, has taken these problems (and solutions) to heart. We have not raised the price of tuition since 2012 – and each entering class is guaranteed that its tuition will not increase during its four undergraduate years, thereby giving parents and students predictability and certainty regarding the cost of a college degree. We now guarantee that every student will have the opportunity for at least one experiential education project – often a semester-long project-based learning experience, where the student can apply classroom theory to practice in the external community – as part of their course of study, thereby ensuring that graduates have the proven skills employers want.

We don’t pretend that we have all the answers. But we do take pride in our efforts to give students what they want, and (even more important) what they need, at an affordable price. Our new overarching goal says it all: To build the university the world needs now.