At a recent higher education media dinner, hosted by Arizona State University, several nationally known journalists from the mainstream media joined the education press to engage the assembled group of university presidents and chancellors in a free-wheeling, open dialog.
Conversation began, predictably, with some speculation on how the November election outcomes might impact higher education. Several panelists expressed optimism that a Democrat-controlled Congress might restore some of the $12.7 billion cut from federal student aid programs earlier this year. As the audience was reminded, those cuts were the biggest in the history of the federal student loan program, amounting to about a third of all the cuts enacted under President Bush's Deficit Reduction Act.
Then the conversation took an interesting turn. Interesting in that it revealed a fatal flaw in the higher education message. A well-known mainstream media representative raised the question of why tuition costs were so high, outpacing the rate of inflation.
Readers of this publication and others in the higher education field are well aware of the mechanisms involved in setting tuition, and the costs involved in providing a quality education. They also know that sky-high tuition costs are the exception, not the rule. The fact is that nearly 80 percent of full-time undergraduates at four-year institutions pay tuition of less than $8,000.
It's one of higher education's best kept secrets.
But apparently this information had not filtered through to the journalists who represent some of the country's largest media outlets.
And if the mainstream press isn't getting the message, then, by extension, neither are the students and families to whom it matters most. Unfortunately, it still appears to be one of higher education's best kept secrets.
Yes, there are a number of organizations trying to set the record straight. The American Council on Education (www.acenet.edu), for example, has a program called College is Possible which helps explain the myths and realities of paying for college.
And the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities' (www.naicu.edu) website lists a variety of efforts to keep student costs low, while maintaining quality, including price reductions, price freezes, student aid initiatives, special scholarships, tuition guarantees, and more.
But, unless one is actively searching for this information, it tends to remain buried on the web. It isn't part of the national discussion. More must be done to engage the messengers, the national media, to understand the facts. It's a challenge that can't be ignored.
Write to Tim Goral at firstname.lastname@example.org.