A new semester is beginning on many college and university campuses. With the smiling and hopeful faces of students and their families as they move onto college campuses around the nation, there is also the thinly veiled anxiety about the cost/benefit analysis of higher education.
Recently, I researched and delivered a presentation on the current challenges and opportunities in higher education. Of course, perspectives on these challenges and opportunities, though they might seem more pressing now, are not by any means new.
During President Clinton’s term, Public Law 105-18, (Title IV, Cost of Higher Education Review, 1997) established the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education as an independent advisory body and called for a comprehensive review of the affordability of higher education because public concern was at an all time high.
This legislation created an 11-member commission with members to be appointed by various governmental bodies. In brief, its charge was to examine factors and trends that were related to higher tuition costs, the role of state and federal policies, mechanisms for financially assisting families, and innovative ways to minimize costs for the future.
According to the final report, “The Commission’s recommendations–several dozen in total–emphasize shared responsibility to (1) strengthen institutional cost control; (2) improve market information and public accountability; (3) deregulate higher education; (4) rethink accreditation; and (5) enhance and simplify Federal student aid.” The degree to which the Commission recommendations were, and are still being enacted, is debatable.
However, in the last five years or so, the public spotlight on higher education seems to have only intensified. Articles and discussions on costs and related issues in higher education can be viewed in various publications such as Forbes, American Association of Colleges and Universities, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. In addition to discussions about costs and graduation rates, the public appears to be more attentive to, and focus on, when things go awry on college campuses. One consequence of this scrutiny is that the terms of college presidents have shortened, and one public misstep anywhere among the rank and file can derail an academic leader. Public confidence in higher education seems to be at an all time low.
Yet, at the core of this spotlight on higher education institutions and the frequency of news stories on the costs, graduation rates, and student debt is the difficulty in determining and measuring families’ and society’s return on its investments in higher education. Some higher education leaders believe that college and university advocates should acknowledge the underlying anxiety among these investors in education and engage in more meaningful dialogues and demonstrations of the added value and contributions of higher education to local, regional, national, and global communities.
Possibly, through dialogues, demonstrations and strategic storytelling, more public recognition will ultimately emerge about the positive effects of higher education on economic development, creation of jobs, cultural enrichment, development of intellectual capital, support of small businesses, and overall heightened quality of life in various communities. However, these conversations will not be easy dialogues or demonstrations to convince families and other taxpayers who are still struggling to pay for college. Questions linger such as: Will higher education really lead to better lifestyles and overall well being? Will debt to finance college educations result in unpaid mortgages, and living from paycheck to paycheck?
After over 30 years in higher education, it is easier to acknowledge that investments in higher education involve extremely complicated short-term and long-term benefits. Higher education outcomes include human transformations within the context of academic coursework, co-curricular activities, leadership opportunities, learning communities, residential life, and internship experiences. It is common for students to leave college with a greater sense of purpose and/or changes in attitudes and perspectives. While educators often observe how higher education transforms individuals and generations of individual families, these observations, in many cases, have not been quantified beyond graduation rates and job attainment. Many educators have seen first hand how the college education of one family member spreads like a ripple effect and changes the quality and perspectives of family worlds for current and future generations.
Because we are steeped in the culture of higher education, we educators might assume that the benefits of higher education are obvious. Thus, we do not necessarily focus on, or understand, the general anxiety of families, legislators, prospective students, and other significant stakeholders who question these investments. Moreover, as educators, we can also point to the numerous assessments already employed in measuring various academic and co-curriculum outcomes of higher education. These assessments include accreditation through the eight regional accreditation associations (i.e. Southern Association, New England, Middle States, Western Association, Council for Higher Education, and so forth) that measure each college/university’s ability to demonstrate that they are fulfilling their academic and student service objectives.
Further, many disciplines within colleges and universities are also accredited by professional associations for that discipline–such as the American Bar Association, Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, National Architectural Accreditation Board, Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology–to name a few.) Nonetheless, many citizens are not aware of these regular assessments, and/or what they signify about the value and benefits of higher education.
Thus, there are more and more discussions throughout local, state and federal levels to increase accountability measures–even though it is not clear that increased measurements would capture the main benefits of higher education (i.e., producing critical thinkers, lifelong learners, and intelligent citizens who will work together to create and improve upon the tenets of our nation). Nonetheless, it is hard to escape the fact that the focus on measuring outcomes is also related to the overall general anxiety about the expected benefits of higher education for obtaining more immediate and tangible outcomes such as high paying jobs, promotional opportunities, and overall higher quality of living that includes nice cars, home ownership, and increased consumerism.
Since many families’ incomes and net worth have not kept pace with the general notions of a middle class good life, it can be argued that frustration and anxiety are probably further fueled by the unrelenting pressure on everyone to continue to consume more, better, newer products and technologies.
So, what should colleges/universities do to counteract this public pressure about costs, the expectation of high-income jobs, and queries about the value of higher education outcomes? Well, for one thing, even though numerous colleges and universities have existed for hundreds of years, they have not always worked strategically to engage in dialogue with significant stakeholders about the value that they add to families and communities. Such conversations are past due.
By highlighting and clearly demonstrating the benefits of higher education that extend far beyond graduation rates, hopefully, more Americans will recognize that critical thinking, broadened perspectives, and innovation (which, by the way, are characteristics of a quality liberal arts education) will lead to a better quality of lives for their families, children, retirement years, and future generations. The more citizens understand the broad and multi-generational benefits of higher education, the greater the possibilities are of reducing general anxiety over costs. Hopefully, anxieties over costs will eventually be replaced by acknowledgements, or pride, that the investment in higher education delivers greater lifelong benefits than the short-term investments in new cars, bigger houses, and the latest trendy technology!
National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education, Federal Register, The Daily Journal of the United States Government, Office of the Federal Register, website.