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Why do we go to college?

The answer to this question has evolved over time, but tune into today’s media and you’d think there’s universal agreement on the one and only reason – to get a job.

For those of us dedicated to the virtues upon which the Academy was built – lifelong love of learning and the pursuit of knowledge in service to the greater good – this commoditization of higher education can be shocking and disheartening. And yet too many colleges and universities remain entrenched in tradition, ignoring the warning signs that point to irrelevance.

I’m here to tell you, folks – higher education is in trouble.

Where does that leave us? With shrinking enrollments… climbing student debt… a reluctance to shift the model…

Collectively, we’re a slow-motion train wreck! The leading institutions seem more interested in U.S. News rankings and in growing endowments than in serving the needs of society at large.

Too many of us at today’s colleges know how to do one thing, believe we do it well, and see no reason to change – even though America has stated very clearly that it requires higher education to be more effective and more affordable. Few of us are willing to change anything about our traditional model, despite these facts:

  • We know the old model of higher education – based on seat time and residency – is increasingly an inappropriate fit for the totality of America’s higher education needs today.
  • We know that the list price for both public and private higher education has risen far, far faster than have family incomes over the past 30 years – and that the escalating cost has burdened graduates and their families with crushing debt.
  • We know that students and parents fear that what they are learning is not what their future employers value, and that they will be underemployed and undercompensated upon graduating.
  • We know that the Band Aid response to these challenges – trying to recruit more students and using increasingly larger tuition discount rates to create a financial incentive that is better than the college next door, only to have that college increase its discount rate – results in declining net revenue per student and growing financial distress on the part of many institutions.

So, what are we going to do about it?

For starters, we must emerge from hiding in our proverbial Ivory Towers and collectively commit to confronting the issues that have everyone from prospects to parents to politicians up in arms.

As the president of Roger Williams University – a private, tuition-dependent university – I confront these challenges daily, in real time, when making decisions that will impact the success of our institution. That means acknowledging both the high cost of tuition and the need to provide an education that yields job-ready students upon graduation.

Do we have all the answers at RWU? Hardly. But we are taking action – engaging in “a lively experiment,” if you will – keeping what works and moving on from what doesn’t.

My Goal in Writing This Blog

My hope is that through this blog, I can play a role in opening up a broader conversation about the issues of cost, debt and jobs that have pushed higher education into crisis, so that we can begin a candid and critical dialog that will catalyze change in higher education in service of the student and the academy and society.

Only by deconstructing the threats to higher education and exploring the roots of these concerns can we hope to develop real solutions. So let’s get to work…