In his State of the Union address this past January, President Obama warned the higher education community that, “If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down.” Clearly, “affordability” of postsecondary education is a top priority of this administration. President Obama went on to say that, “We can’t just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition, we’ll run out of money. States need to do their part by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets. And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down."
Our young people are facing a financial “perfect storm”: increasing tuition, heavy debt loads and low job prospects. Tuition costs are increasing more rapidly than health costs; the total student debt in America has hit the $1 trillion mark, with an average student debt of some $25,000; and, almost 54% of new college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed - certainly, a “perfect storm.”
In a New York Times op-ed piece this week entitled, “Come the Revolution”, Thomas Freidman lauds the recent launching of a new interactive online education company as a possible approach to some of these issues. Coursera provides a platform to host courses offered by Stanford, Princeton, Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania, courses which will be offered free online, and will provide a system for testing, grading, and peer-tutoring. Certificates of completion will also be offered. As Mr. Friedman said, “Sounds like a good deal.” Certainly, increased access to knowledge is and always will be, “… a good deal.” But, does the kind of experience offered by Coursera (and other like ventures), as cost effective as they may be, constitute a quality educational experience, one which will prepare our young people to be competitive – not just locally, not just nationally, but globally? That question must be considered seriously at all of our nation’s institutions of higher education. What should the approach of our colleges and universities be to teaching and learning? What do students gain from their various degree programs? Are our colleges examining ways to increase the quality of their various programs even as they seek to decrease the costs to their students? Is the higher education community sufficiently concerned about the short-and long-term impact of rising educational costs and rising tuitions?
President Obama has called on states as well as colleges and universities to prioritize these issues and be accountable for their resolution. In terms of public funding of higher education, it has been reported recently in the New York Times that “from 2001 to 2011, state and local financing per student declined by an average of 24% nationally.” And according to the College Board, over the same time period, “tuition and fees increased 72% at state schools, compared with 29% at non-profit private institutions.” Decreased public funding has led, not surprisingly, to increased costs for our students as tuition and fees have been raised to fill the gap in funding from government.
Much of this change has followed naturally from the economic challenges faced by our governments – state and federal – over the last several years. However, shifting more of the financial burden of higher education to the student may also reflect, in part, a policy shift which sees education more as a private, individual benefit than a public good…and, hence, should be paid for to a major degree by the individual. Such a policy shift would appear to run counter to the president’s call for greater state support and for more affordable tuition levels for our students – students currently graduating with debt loads which could, eventually, lead to decreased participation in higher education. If, however, higher education is a “public good” and of value to our national competitiveness, major changes in the organization, teaching strategies and financing of our institutions of higher learning will be necessary. New paradigms will need to be developed if we are to sustain the quality of our diverse system of higher education in this country, even as we make it affordable and accessible to students from all socioeconomic levels, new approaches which will require the creative engagement of both higher education and government. States need to develop funding formulas which are predictable and individualized to the particular needs of different institutional types, and colleges and universities must be held accountable for creating high-quality, yet cost-effective, programs of study for their students.
There is a role to be played by all sectors of society as we continue to address the challenges faced by higher education in this country. As we emerge from the economic recession of the past several years, let us come together, not to re-create traditional approaches to teaching and learning, but rather to develop new strategies, strategies which are cost-effective and affordable, even as they address the needs of our students in innovative ways.
Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge” .
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