In my last post, I considered at some length the pros and cons of tuition-free public higher education, as advocated by some candidates now campaigning to be the next president of our country. After all, the reasoning goes, free tuition has been a long-standing policy in the K-12 sector; why not higher education? Different candidates vary with respect to how generous they are prepared to be, with one advocating a means test and at least a token investment by the students and their families, whereas another wants simply to do away with tuition at public colleges for everyone.
Unfortunately, the candidates are not discussing what particular problem their policy is intended to solve. Surely, in order to be effective, solutions have to derive from a collective agreement on, and understanding of, what problem the solution is intended to remedy – and our presidential candidates appear to have skipped this step.
The presidential election is almost a year away, so we still have time to think more about the problem we want to address before we fall in love with a particular solution.
I have worked as a higher education instructor, researcher and administrator for more than four decades. Over that span, I’ve seen many presidential campaigns, and in almost every case, higher education has not been a plank in the platform of either of the major parties. Those of us in the groves of academe may have been ignored by presidential candidates in the past, but at least we knew that we would not be troubled by them.
Ah, for the good old days!
This year, higher education seems to be a part of every candidate’s agenda. (See, for example, “Punch Lines Versus Polish on Iowa Trail,” The New York Times, Jan. 1, 2016.) The Democratic candidates are focused on making college far more affordable – even tuition-free in the mind of at least one candidate. The Republican candidates are focused on affordability as well, but with much greater emphasis on the need for institutions to reduce their prices and/or the need for Washington to reduce federal financial aid – since some argue that it is the easy availability of federal grants and subsidized loans that permitted colleges to raise their prices so much in the first place (although there are few studies that support that contention, and many that refute it). Finally, at least one candidate is focused on “practical” education (“we need more welders and less [sic] philosophers,” “In GOP Debate, Rubio Again Criticizes Philosophy,” Inside Higher Ed, Nov. 11, 2015).
As the political primaries take place, with the inevitable coalescing behind a single candidate in each major party, it will be interesting to see how these various ideas play out: How will each of them be received by the American public, and which one will emerge as the most important?
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:
Almost every week for the past two years, I have been posting opinion pieces to this blog that relate to the current issues and challenges facing higher education nationally, and that provide details about the solutions we have been developing and implementing at Roger Williams University. I have tried to call things as I see them. Where I felt it fair and appropriate, I have not been shy about being critical of higher education in general, and the practices at some campuses in particular.
At the same time, I have endeavored to place the issues facing higher education in the broader context of 21st century America: not every problem that involves higher education can be fairly attributed to the actions of our colleges and universities, and not every problem that involves higher education can be solved by higher education, either as individual campuses or in the collective.
On Monday, April 14, 2014, the Lumina Foundation convened a group of opinion leaders in Washington, D.C., to discuss college affordability, federal student loan policies and the role of states in supporting public colleges and universities (The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Paying for College: Experts Gather in Search of New Models,” April 15, 2014).
Unfortunately, the experts came up empty.
One commentator noted that “affordable” does not necessarily mean “cheap.” Another touted the merits of a net-price calculator designed to show the number of years after graduation at which “the benefits of college outweigh the cumulative costs.” A third suggested that greater numbers of women and minorities should choose more lucrative majors.
I hope the Lumina Foundation did not overly deplete its endowment to pay for these platitudes and in-the-box thinking.
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.
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:
I read an off-hand reference to a fact that all but knocked me out of my seat: tuition and fees at UCLA for out-of-state students total $35,570 for the current academic year. (Room and board is extra: another $14,232.)
I wondered how many students were paying such a huge sum. In addition to the 7 percent who are international students, only 5 percent of UCLA’s undergraduates are from out-of-state. Still, that’s more than 1,300 students – not an insignificant number. Moreover, at UC Berkeley, with a comparable out-of-state fee, 10 percent of students (about 2,500) are from out-of-state, in addition to the 9 percent who are international students.
We are in the closing weeks of college choice decision time: most institutions have a May 1 date for students to “accept the acceptance.” After that date, some colleges and universities will have a full class for the fall of 2013 and will return deposits postmarked May 2 or later; at many others, the choice (or even the availability) of residence halls, as well as classes, may be severely restricted. So prospective students should be prepared to make their choice of campuses by May 1.
But for many students, cost is a factor that limits choice. In short, can the student (and his or her family) afford the campus that is the student’s first choice?
It is at this point that the expectations of the campus and the student are often at odds. Based on extensive survey data, most students and their families expect to pay substantially less than the institution’s sticker price – and that is often the expectation of the institution as well. But there are enormous differences between and among institutions as to their willingness (or ability) to offer financial support.
In his March 17 column (“Better Colleges Failing to Lure Talented Poor”), David Leonhardt of The New York Times wrote about a study that found that only 34 percent of high-achieving students in the bottom quartile of family income enrolled in one of the nation’s 238 most selective colleges, as compared to 78 percent of high-achieving students in the top quartile of family income.
One conclusion is that elite schools, for all their rhetoric, are failing to recruit an economically diverse entering class of students.