NOTHING TENDS TO FOCUS the mind more than impending doom, which lately has taken the form of the speeding train that is our current financial crisis. College and university presidents and provosts across the nation are studying spreadsheets as if they were scholars examining the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, the focus should not be self-involved. It should be on the students.
It’s obvious, but the mission of any college or university is to provide an education and life-changing experiences for every student who enrolls. In lean times, it’s hard to justify taking money we receive from hard-pressed families and using it to install a coffee bar in the student center or to poach a Pulitzer-winning professor from another institution.
Instead of bemoaning the loss of a new palatial residence hall or artificial turf athletic field (or the downsizing of the presidential car from a Mercedes to a Prius), it’s high time we concentrate our resources to help make the journey to a diploma easier.
Changing the culture at any institution is a bit like steering an aircraft carrier by trailing a hand in the water, but if we can reach out and help more students weather the current crisis, we can make real President Obama’s goal of making college more affordable and within reach of every American.
Here are some actions college and university leaders can take to ensure students get the most affordable education possible.
— Increase work-study positions on campus. Often full-time employees do jobs that could be done by talented students. If you have students doing jobs that pay well off-campus, such as IT support or supervisory positions, pay them well above the minimum wage for work-study on campus.
— Set aside money to help families. Adjust financial aid for those in which primary wage-earners are unemployed or have experienced a drastic financial crisis.
— Use endowment principal funds to create a pool for short-term, low-interest loans for families whose current loans are no longer viable due to changes in real estate values or other issues.
— Turn off the lights. Rather than building a $26 million facility with plants on the roof and declaring yourself “green,” install low-energy bulbs, replace inefficient infrastructure when making repairs, and make sure all building renovations are energy-efficient. Yes, and turn off the lights when leaving a room. Also, unplug computers at day’s end and turn the air conditioner to 78 degrees.
— Work with food service providers to deliver a variety of meal plans that will lower costs for students.
— Do what you can to ensure every student graduates on time. The inconvenient truth of higher education is that many students take five or six years to graduate, and extra years of tuition and wages lost to not working are the equivalent of throwing away a brand-new car or the down payment on a house. With careful faculty advising, more personal interaction with students, and flexible, interdisciplinary majors, you can ensure there won’t be any “eighth-year seniors” around to take up valuable resources.
As in politics, all financial crises are essentially local. Campus leaders should ask not what a community can do for them but rather what they can do for the community.
Beyond education, colleges are entertainment providers, employers, and service providers for their hometowns. The typical campus houses manpower, intellectual resources, and many unused or unseen activities.
The opportunities to reach out are many. Have accounting students complete tax returns for the elderly and low-income families. Ask student clubs to offer free yardwork or spring cleanings. Give employees a day off to give a Rotary Club workshop or share what they do at the high school. Offer one free concert a year featuring a national entertainer. Create a free summer camp using education department students as staff. Develop a business incubator for students and members of the community. The ideas are only limited by the culture of the campus.
The natural inclination in difficult circumstances is to put your head down and protect what you have. Higher ed must work to avoid that mindset. Perhaps the most valuable lesson a college can deliver is that it’s OK to look outside the bunker to focus on the flowers blooming on the battlefield.
Thomas R. Kepple is president of Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa.