As college acceptance letters began popping up in mailboxes across the country this year, incoming students were left once again with the daunting task of choosing the right school. While cost has always been a consideration, more students than ever before are now considering it as a key factor—not only in terms of which school to attend, but whether they go to college at all.
Consider the financial barriers. Public college tuition fees rose more than 8 percent in 2011 alone, according to the College Board. That’s more than two-and-a-half times the inflation rate. To cover these rising costs, today’s students are borrowing twice the amount they did just a decade ago. Now, for the first time in history, student loan debt has surpassed credit card debt, according to recent reports from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the U.S. Department of Education, and private sources. American students are now more than $1 trillion in debt for their studies; American consumers owe $828 billion to their credit card companies.
As recent graduates struggle to pay back their student loans, we are faced with the reality that there is a fundamental structural failure of higher education.
Today’s colleges and universities are stuck in a 20th Century mindset. They’re still designed to cater to traditional students who want a traditional on-campus experience. And they’re trying to fund their institutions using the old, tried-and-true methods like endowments, grants, and donations. Only those methods, although tried, aren’t so true anymore. This failure to evolve has driven up costs, hurting students and those who view higher education as out of reach.
Our system must change—and it can change. At Upper Iowa University, for example, we believe so passionately in containing the cost of education that we have just moved forward with a $50 million capital improvement program without relying on fundraising, which means we can enhance our students’ experience without making them responsible for the bill. And we were able to do this because we’ve moved past the traditional university structure.
We offer four modes of study that allow for flexibility to accommodate the lifestyles of today’s student body. Along with the traditional on-campus experience, a student can attend other educational facilities we have located nationwide, international locations, and a distinguished online study program. While many schools may offer similar options, UIU has integrated the programs so that a student can take courses via any of the four modes and earn the same degree as they otherwise would under the traditional four-year model.
Colleges and universities are pumping so much of their budget and alumni donations into building new buildings and updating campus structures that it leaves little to no room for anything else. By decreasing the need for bricks and mortar, and providing new ways for students to achieve their desired level of education, UIU is able to offer an aggressive financial aid system, ensuring that every student, no matter what mode or modes of study are chosen, will receive financial assistance. In fact, the average UIU student leaves with far less debt than at comparable institutions.
As a tuition-dependent institution actively focusing on keeping tuition within reach for all students, we have found that integrating our back-office operations such as our enrollment, marketing, and other key operational functions has allowed for a more seamless, automated, and integrated method of doing business. This model creates greater scalability of present administrative, budgetary, and technological resources so that we can afford to focus on maintaining tuition costs while still improving academic quality.
This new structure has allowed us to generate different revenue streams, not limiting us to endowments or government grants for support. By taking a nontraditional approach, we are able to focus on what the future of education holds, demonstrating the importance of providing options for today’s nontraditional students.
The U.S. higher education system is at a critical point in its history—a point where it’s not too late to evolve for the benefit of students and the industry itself. It’s time we stop viewing higher education as a luxury, and put it back in reach to those who want to pursue it.
—Alan G. Walker is president of Upper Iowa University, located in Fayette, Iowa. Dr. Melik Khoury is senior vice president for External Affairs at Unity College.