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.
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.
In his column in The New York Times on March 9, Charles M. Blow states: “We are reaching a crisis point in this country’s higher education system” because of “staggering levels of debt.” He notes that student loan debt has more than doubled in the last eight years, to almost $1 trillion, and that, not unexpectedly, student loan debt is hardest on families in the bottom quintile of family income. Mr. Blow ends his column with, “We are on an unsustainable track. This will not end well.”
How is it that this problem has become so large so quickly? How do we fix it? Is this as big a problem as people claim?
I’m glad you asked. This is a problem that resulted from many intersecting forces:
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.
On the 16th of January, Moody’s Investors Service issued a report entitled “US Higher Education Outlook Negative in 2013.” Inside Higher Ed followed with an article on the findings in the report the next day. The report, and the article, were sobering reading for university administrators, and, in some quarters, more than a little frightening.
Moody’s, one of the three major credit rating agencies worldwide, has downgraded its outlook for the entire U.S. higher education sector from stable to negative. Based on a careful analysis of data over the past several years, Moody’s concludes that there is “mounting pressure on all key university revenue sources, requiring bolder actions by university leaders to reduce costs and increase operating efficiency.”
In my last post, I posed the dilemma of how a campus could freeze tuition (as Roger Williams University has chosen to do), thereby eliminating a logical source of new revenue, without somehow causing damage to the quality of the students’ educational outcomes. Isn’t it the case that “you get what you pay for” – and if you pay less, doesn’t that ensure that you will receive less?
Of course, most people recognize that the quoted statement is overly simplistic. A person can spend anywhere from about $15,000 to more than $200,000 for a new car, but most people don’t think that it is worth it to spend extravagantly on a car, if their primary goal is just to have reliable transportation. Similarly, one can purchase a perfectly respectable bottle of wine for $10 to $20, although it is also possible to spend more than $200 for a grand cru from Burgundy. Is that bottle worth 10 or 20 times the first bottle? As a practical matter, not to most people.
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.”