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.
There is no shortage of commentary regarding the problems of higher education. Too often, however, the wrong people are in the conversation. It’s a waste of time to attempt to convince people of the righteousness of your position if the people to whom you are speaking already agree with you – and if your arguments aren’t precise, you can actually do your cause damage by providing the other side with free ammunition.
By way of example, Suzanne Mettler, a professor of government at Cornell University, has recently written a book with the provocative title of Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream. Essays drawn from the book appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education on March 7, The New York Times on March 1, and a news article on the book was in the Epoch Times on March 31.
The New York Times published an article by Catherine Rampell on Sept. 24 titled “Freebies for the Rich.” (Another version of the same article was published in the Times Sunday magazine on Sept. 29.)
In the article, Ms. Rampell points out that, at public universities, the share of aid devoted to “merit” has tripled, to 29 percent, over the past two decades. She also points out that metrics used to determine merit, such as SAT scores, are closely correlated with family income: whereas only one student in 10 receives merit aid in families earning less than $30,000, one student in five receives merit aid in families earning over $250,000.
Yep, that’s the title of an op-ed in Forbes on Sept. 12, 2013. (Actually, the full title is, “There’s No College Tuition ‘Bubble’: College Education Is Underpriced.”)
Well, that contention came as a bit of shock to me, writing as I have been for many months about runaway sticker prices, and how colleges and universities need to address the issue before the federal government does it for them. What gives?
The author, Jeffrey Dorfman, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Georgia, is a believer in the free market system and a self-described libertarian. Let’s see how his reasoning holds up.
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.
On Sunday 25 August, The Boston Globe ran a front-page story entitled “Colleges back off need-blind admissions.” The article describes how colleges such as Wesleyan, Williams, MIT, Cornell and the University of Virginia are reducing their commitment to meet the financial needs of the students they admit – but the story pays particular attention to Tufts University, located in the Boston suburbs.
The timing of this story is interesting, coming as it did at the end of a week where newspapers across the country were reporting on President Obama’s commitment to increase both the affordability and the practicality of a college education in America. How is it that these private schools seem to be going in exactly the opposite direction?
For the past 18 months, the media (and, subsequently, the politicians) have been focused on the rising tide of student debt. Two issues have attracted particular attention: first, the fact that total student debt has (a) exceeded $1 trillion, or, expressed alternatively, (b) exceeded the total of credit card debt; and second, the fact that some individuals have accumulated more than $100,000 in student debt.
News stories have become increasingly frantic. For example:
In a March 9 editorial, The New York Times cited a federal analysis from 2009 that “found that 10 percent of borrowers with private loans were spending more than 25 percent of their incomes in monthly payments.” But of the 60 percent of students who borrow, only about one-third (20 percent) have private loans – so the 10 percent of private borrowers who are spending more than 25 percent of their incomes in loan payments represent just 2 percent of all graduates. Those large payments are a huge problem – but only for a very small number of individuals.
A Bloomberg.com post on May 7 was headlined “Bankers Warn Fed of Farm, Student Loan Bubbles Echoing Subprime.” That’s a pretty scary headline – but the article conflates a meeting of the Federal Advisory Council on February 8, 2013, relating to farmland prices, where the term “bubble” was in fact used, with a meeting of the same group a year earlier (February 3, 2012) relating to student loan debt, where “bubble” was not used.
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.
Some years ago, a few of the most prestigious colleges and universities adopted a new model for admitting students. Rather than facing a delay of several months after making application before hearing the university’s decision, a prospective student could choose to apply for “early decision.” The very best applicants would learn much earlier in the admissions cycle that they had been accepted – but the catch was that they then had to commit to attend the university that had accepted them. No longer could they wait and compare offers from other institutions. “Early decision” cut both ways: in return for an early answer, the student was obliged to make an irreversible commitment.
In Part I of this post, we discussed how the “high cost/high aid” model of price and cost in higher education has led to growing educational debt and a widening achievement gap between affluent and low-income students. This week, we’ll talk about how (and why) to change this model.
But first: consider the following hypothetical conversation between an admissions officer and two prospective students, as he explains the college’s financial aid policy: