Last week I complained about unreasonable expectations being placed on colleges and universities. I rather quickly assembled a list of 10 such issues (there are actually a few more), and I indicated that in Part 2 of this topic, I would offer an opinion about what higher education can (and should) do – and what is simply beyond our capacity to correct.
I’d like to start with three related issues that represent numbers 1, 2 and 7 in my list from last week:
More low-income students need to be admitted at top private schools;
The pipeline to college must be widened; and
It’s all about college completion rates.
On January 16, President Obama convened more than 100 higher education officials (most of whom were either the presidents of elite colleges or heads of community colleges or public university systems) to seek commitments on four areas of concern:
It’s an interesting time to be a university president. Not a week goes by that someone doesn’t raise a new expectation of what universities can or should be doing. Often, this expectation comes in the form of criticism. Sometimes, it arrives as a recommendation about improving a process.
Taken collectively, the various tasks and expectations now being dropped on higher education administrators are often highly unrealistic, frequently mutually exclusive, and ultimately are doomed to fail.
It’s time for a little straight talk. Let me start by acknowledging two things.
First, higher education in the United States has, at least for the last 150 years, been more responsible than any other component of our society for the American success story – both as a country and as the ladder to individual prosperity and accomplishment. We should therefore be wary of radical changes to a proven track record.
It’s been quite a week here at Roger Williams University. We have been more than a little curious regarding the impact that Affordable Excellence would have on the retention of our current students, and on the enrollment of new students who will be entering this coming fall. Given the number of private colleges in the Northeast, coupled with a continuing decline in the number of high school graduates in New England, competition for new students in our region has never been more fierce.
A recent article in The Wall Street Journal (“Colleges Cut Prices by Providing More Financial Aid,” May 6, 2013) reports that the average discount rate (the amount of prospective tuition revenue that is returned to students as financial aid) rose to 45 percent for the 2012-13 academic year, the highest ever – and all indications are that the discount rate for the coming academic year will be even higher. When 45 percent of tuition dollars are used not for actual instruction, but simply to lure people through the front door, colleges are hard pressed to offer a quality educational experience. They try to stay ahead of their competitors by significantly raising the sticker prices for tuition each year, in order to generate new dollars that can be given as aid. Of course, their competitors do exactly the same thing. The consequence is that the published prices make college seem increasingly unaffordable.
We Americans are a funny lot. Whether because of our heritage as a nation born through revolution and blessed with size and an abundance of natural resources, or because of our fascination with winning, as we do in athletics, we seem inordinately fond of defining, and being associated with, “the best.” Tonight and tomorrow night, respectively, we will determine “the best” men’s and women’s collegiate basketball teams in the country, and ice hockey will soon follow. We’ll get to baseball in late spring, and next January it will be time to declare “the best” college football team.
This fascination with determining “the best” carries over to colleges and universities themselves. Shouldn’t we urge our children to attend “the best” college or university – or at least “the best” institution that will accept him or her? Why settle for second best? We want “the best!”
When we tire from worrying about North Korea, Iran, fiscal cliffs and sequestering, we can sit back and luxuriate in the knowledge that our institutions of higher education are still doing their job of opening the door of opportunity to permit successive generations of students to achieve both educational and economic advancement. Regardless of the circumstances of their birth, or of the wealth of their families, talented and ambitious students rest secure in the knowledge that their efforts will be recognized and rewarded by top colleges and universities. Because of their enormous endowments, these institutions now more than ever have the capacity to be need-blind in the admissions process, meaning that students will be admitted without regard to their ability to pay.
Oops! Maybe it’s time to go back to thinking about nuclear weapons and cliffs. Several of the wealthiest campuses have recently announced that they are reducing their aid packages for needy students and are no longer offering need-blind admission.