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.
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.
Last week, I commented on Charles M. Blow’s March 9 column in The New York Times, which focused on the problem of student debt. I discussed the factors that contributed to the sudden growth of educational debt and steps that are necessary to rectify the problem (or would at least prevent it from becoming worse).
I ran out of room before I could get to the issue of assessing how big a problem student debt really is – hence, Part II this week.
On the one hand, student debt has increased dramatically: roughly $1 trillion in total debt, more than twice what it was just eight years ago, and larger in size than the total of all credit card debt. On an individual level, approximately half of the student population borrows to finance their education, and they graduate owing an average of about $26,000.
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.”
Newsweek – before last week’s news on the move to all-digital – actually beat TIME to the punch, asking on its September 17 issue, “Is College a Lousy Investment?”