The New 'A's' of Higher Education
NATIONAL REPORTS about higher ed illustrate the growing gaps in accessibility, affordability, and accountability-particularly for poor and minority students.
These are daunting issues. In 1966, annual expenditures by America's colleges and universities were $12.5 billion. Today they are $315.4 billion. Enrollment has tripled to 17.5 million. Appropriations for state-owned and related institutions have gone from $3.5 billion to $66.6 billion.
Affordability remains a prime concern. Tuition continues to increase at rates above the consumer price index. Most institutional costs are driven by personnel. At College Misericordia (Pa.), for instance, personnel costs comprise more than 75 percent of the annual budget. Labor costs rise faster than business costs. Computers have even declined in real price over the years; labor continues to rise at a rate above the CPI.
Similar to other service providers, IHEs respond to customer demands. Lawrence Bacow, president of Tufts University (Mass.), said it best in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article: "We know how to improve productivity, and we know how to cut costs, but I don't have a single parent or alumnus telling me to have larger classes, have less hands-on learning, and shift the (student) advising from faculty to others." The costs of faculty and staff and demands for high-quality, postsecondary education mitigate many efforts to keep tuition low.
Publicly supported state institutions that grew in the post-World War II era and beyond to help economically disadvantaged students are being maligned for their lack of accessibility. The Education Trust report "Engines of Inequality" decries the growing tendencies of elite public colleges to provide institutional financial aid based on academic merit rather than need. Few of the 50 flagship institutions graded well on minority and low-income access, or on records of minority and low-income student graduation. Four schools received a "B" grade, 14 earned a "C,'' 25 a "D,'' and seven an "F."
Ironically, smaller, private institutions and some public ones are enhancing the probability of economically disadvantaged students entering and graduating. At Misericordia, 96 percent of students receive financial aid, and more than 50 percent are first-generation college students. Fewer than 40 percent of all U.S. freshmen with a traditional major graduate in four years; even fewer poor and minority students do. At smaller schools, the four-year graduation rate is much higher. Misericordia retains 90 percent of its students every year, and about 75 percent of them graduate in four years.
We need to keep in mind that:
The call for accountability is reasonable. Others will measure our progress if we don't delineate solid assessment criteria.
On-time graduation is important to those paying for an education. Helping to ensure that students graduate in a reasonable time is the business of all of us.
There's much pressure to increase expenditures. We must help personnel see how costs impact the bottom line and tuition.
The price of tuition was $2,200 when I entered college in 1965. So was the cost of a four-door Chevrolet. Today at Misericordia the cost of tuition is $20,330 before financial aid, scholarships, and other need-based aid. But that four-door Chevrolet costs $24,000. Most people don't buy a car every year, but the rate of return on one pales in comparison with a college education. A college education is an investment that pays big dividends to the graduate and community. Those with a college degree will earn about $2.1 million more over their life span than those without one.
Let's remind the government and decision-makers of this: College is the best investment people can make in themselves, their children, and their country.
Michael A. MacDowell is president of College Misericordia in Dallas, Pa.