Cutting College Costs?

In his acceptance speech for the nomination of his party in Charlotte last night, President Obama made glancing reference to reducing college tuition, pledging to “work with colleges and universities to cut in half the growth of tuition costs over the next 10 years.”

This is an echo of his State Of The Union Address in January 2012 where the President suggested withholding federal student financial aid from universities that did not reduce their costs. At that time he suggested as well that federal financial aid should be tied to measured outcomes for student learning. I happened to be in Washington, D. C. for meetings with private university presidents that week in January, and the notion that the federal government had any business in either area, costs or outcomes, created an uproar that was deafening.

Last night my reservations about these suggestions immediately surfaced again. To be sure addressing the rise in college tuition is a major challenge for higher education. We cannot have our heads in the sand on this one. While perceptions of the cost of a college education far outstrip the realities, precisely because of financial aid, nevertheless, this is an issue of profound importance for our families and for our society. We must pledge ourselves to continue offering quality education that is somehow within the reach of most families in our country. At the moment people sense we are losing ground on this critical goal.

But to expect this is a partnership with the federal government is an illusion. What exactly is the President proposing to do to partner with us to reduce the growth of tuition? At the very time the federal government is under enormous pressure to reduce financial aid to students, the President proposes that we cut our costs. These two forces are simply on a collision course. This will not add up. The President doesn’t know our business. To meddle in this way will be damaging.

Now, having gotten that off my chest, I know I must sound defensive. The university in our country cannot retreat into the comfort of any defensive or arrogant posture. We are the ones who must take the responsibility for addressing the issue of cost. For the time being, we have decided to supplement the loss of both state and federal financial aid from our own budgets, “discounting” as we call it to levels that are dangerous and unattainable.

My feeling is that higher education must enter into an era of innovation unprecedented in its marvelous 900 year run. Something must change in the way we do our work, in the economic model that frames our way of doing our business of college education. Something has to give. This can either be an era of buckle down, drastic reduction, or it can be an era of innovation. I choose the latter. I see enormous opportunities out ahead.

In blog posts to follow, I will suggest some of those ways the university can enter into this era of innovation. For me the solutions will come, not from the federal government pretending we can go back to an earlier time, but rather from the extraordinary talent that resides on our campuses. We need vision and we need leadership, but we can get the job done. My confidence in faculty to rise to this challenge has never been greater, though I must quickly add, my confidence in our current model, and the campus culture that supports that model, is very low. Something must change, and I feel it is the faculty, sprung loose from old assumptions, that can help lead the way.

So stay tuned for further thoughts on innovation in higher education.

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Categories: Culture

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