In October 2012, following months of discussion and analysis, the Roger Williams University Board of Trustees adopted an initiative called Affordable Excellence®. These two words reference a host of actions devoted either to making an RWU education more affordable to a broader cross-section of families of high school graduates hoping to enroll at a high-quality private university, or to enhancing the quality of that education even beyond its already very high level.
Wow! Such a big question! Let’s start by making a key distinction:
(1) One might interpret this question as, “How much does a university charge the student and parents?” Allowing for such significant complications as different sticker prices at different universities, different financial aid packages for different students at the same university, different fees for different majors, additional charges (primarily from rising tuition prices) in the sophomore, junior and senior years – it is nonetheless the case that, when the incoming freshman arrives on campus, he or she (and the parents) know fairly accurately what their out-of-pocket costs will be, at least for the first year. So while this is an important question, and answering it can be confusing and time-consuming, in the end it is answerable. But consider the second alternative.
In my four previous posts to this blog, I discussed a series of expectations, concerns and remedies that politicians, parents and the media have for higher education (“Now Everyone Has a Solution for Higher Education,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 29, 2013). Taken collectively, this list contains items that are often unrealistic and, at times, contradictory.
Well, that’s easy for me to say. As a university president, I might be expected to be an apologist for the status quo in higher education. But this is an important issue to get right: what aspects of our current economic dilemma properly belong at the feet of higher education, and what components are someone else’s responsibility? It does no one any good for society to create expectations of higher education that higher education has neither the capacity nor the intention to resolve.
Yesterday, in my annual State of the University address to the RWU community, I spoke about matters familiar to readers of this blog: the concerns of prospective students and their parents about the cost of higher education; rising debt loads for far too many graduates; and securing well-paying jobs after graduation.
I referenced President Obama’s challenge to the higher education community to make America’s colleges and universities more affordable and more accountable.
I pointed out criticisms from the media (including a recent cartoon in The New York Times on Sept. 1 that ridiculed higher education), and I referenced many polls and surveys that found both college presidents and chief financial officers overwhelmingly agreeing that the current high cost/high aid model for higher education is broken – yet choosing not to do anything to change the model.
Colleges and universities across the country are undergoing a seasonal transformation, from relatively tranquil oases to frenetic hives of activity, as the students, new and returning, arrive on campus for another academic year. It’s the circle of life, campus style, playing out in highly predictable ways.
In the midst of the excitement of the students’ arrival, there are poignant vignettes of parents saying goodbye to their sons and daughters. It is often a traumatic time for both students and parents – and this seems to be particularly true for parents trying to cope as their first-born, or last-born, leaves the nest.
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.
In my previous post, I noted the diametrically opposed reactions of some colleges and universities to the public’s rising concerns regarding the cost of a college education, and the ballooning debt taken on by a growing number of students and their families.
The large majority of both public and private institutions are tweaking what I believe to be a broken model: they are seeking to increase financial aid while looking for ways of economizing, but, while well intentioned, these are at best temporary bandages on a severe wound. Moreover, these solutions are not sustainable, and, in their efforts to economize, these campuses risk being perceived as cutting the quality of their educational offerings.
A recent analysis showed that the median family income in America, adjusted for inflation, has fallen to levels not seen since 1995. The median inflation-adjusted tuition sticker price at America’s private colleges and universities, however, has grown by more than 50 percent since 1995. The consequence, even with increases in institutional aid, is that a substantially smaller fraction of the population is able to afford today’s prices than was true in 1994.
How have we arrived at this undesirable – and, I would suggest, unacceptable – outcome?
Well, there are several reasons. Higher education is an inherently costly enterprise, and there are few economies of scale: doubling class size, for example, would save money, but it would come at the expense of a personalized learning environment – the primary selling point of private higher education.
Last Friday, the latest edition of TIME Magazine hit newsstands across America with a cover that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago – one blurb previewing the “Reinventing College” issue proclaimed, “Our Exclusive Poll: 80% Think College Isn’t Worth the Money.”