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Sailing out of the Imperfect Storm

Tuition affordability, gainful employment, and student debt burden
University Business, December 2014

There are few economic challenges that move the dial in America quite like the skyrocketing costs of higher ed. From early morning pundits to late night talk shows the student and family debt burden issue is clear and ever present.

In the view of U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren - "Rising student-loan debt is an economic emergency…Forty million people are dealing with $1.2 trillion in outstanding student debt. It's stopping young people from buying homes, from buying cars and from starting small businesses. We need to take action."

Bloomberg News recently reported that the cost of higher learning has risen 1,225 percent since 1978 - double the amount of the next highest sector, medical costs. This debt burden heavily influences both future financial decisions for millennials and the retirement plans of their parents.

What exacerbates this problem is that many students are paying more than ever for tuition, yet are taking longer than ever to actually graduate. The U.S. Department of Education reports that less than 40 percent of students who enter college each year graduate within four years. The new reality is that the prohibitive cost of tuition often forces students to work full time – making it a somewhat daunting challenge to complete timely graduation. So the question now is how did we get here? For baby boomers it all started with the GI Bill which turned the luxury of college into a realistic aspiration and reasonable expectation for the middle class. Many of us rode this wave of affordable higher ed and when we finished, government aid helped get us over the financial hump. With a constant flow of predictable financial aid streaming in, colleges and universities launched on a growth trajectory fueled by the considerable power of Capitol Hill to print new money through annual increases of financial aid. Worse yet, institutions fed the financial aid discounting appetite of needs based admissions. Times have changed. In the wake of irreversible economic stress, trustees and system-wide governing Boards and Commissions are adding sticks and carrots to discourage undue duplication of faculty effort and importantly to incentivize the formation of new resource sharing consortia.

In the new campus fiscal environment, senior staff are encouraged to come up with creative cost avoidance and expense reduction measures – i.e. accelerated degrees, cross registration, cohort discounts, collaborative degree completion options, transfer articulations, and rotating semesters. Students can now earn accelerated, stackable academic credentials along a seamless pathway to academic success – read as Associate’s, Bachelor’s, and graduate programs. At the same time, institutions are refreshing their curriculum and career prep programs with guidance from discipline-specific advisory boards and external peer reviews.

At Wheelock College in Boston, we learned from President Jackie Jenkins Scott that “through the Colleges of the Fenway, Wheelock College and the five other institutions collaborate to offer programs that we wouldn’t be able to offer independently while holding down the cost to each individual campus. Faculty look forward to our joint faculty development programs, valuing the opportunity to learn from each other and invited speakers who are leaders in their fields.”

Significantly, on some campuses the administration has had to right-size student life activities and services – detracting from the total student learning and living experience. Just consider how many schools and colleges have discontinued venerable intercollegiate athletic team traditions. Most of these the smaller schools have no ESPN or sports channel royalties.

Beyond tuition and fee increases, the Center for College Affordability reported that textbook prices have risen 82 percent since 2002. These book prices only add to the cost of an education. A number of institutions are subsidizing the price of books and many are using open source instructional packages that were created by faculty, reviewed by peers, and made accessible online for a fraction of the cost of conventional textbooks.

Nowadays, a number of major college rankings consider resources, selectivity, enrollment yield, retention, graduation, and gainful employment – along with qualitative factors such as academic reputation among peer institutions. These variables help students and families find value in their future higher ed tuition and fee investments.

So, playing the value added rankings and ratings game is now a plausible proactive marketing tactic for institutions to set themselves apart. Some say the ‘old boy’ network is still alive and well within the ranking community - driven by who is scratching whose back. These days, rankings are held more accountable to substantiated and independently verified so-called value rankings.

For the road ahead, the trick will be for competing campuses to transform their historical competitors into partners - by collaborating to avoid undue competition, and importantly reduce expenses, increase net profitably, and importantly effectuate economies of scale, efficiencies of operation, and non-duplication of program and faculty effort.

—James Martin and James E. Samels, are authors of The Sustainable University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.

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