Real Value in Higher Education

Kriste Lindenmeyer, June 2013

Bravo, President Barack Obama. Thank you for changing the conversation about the priorities for higher education in the United States. Your speeches last Thursday emphasized the importance of access, affordability, quality, and the road to successfully earning a degree. For too long, the public dialogue about going to college has focused on prestige, which too often translated to mean that degrees with the most “value” were those from the nation’s most expensive schools. Even with student debt reaching $1 trillion, US News and World Report continued to rank the most expensive and least accessible private colleges in America as the “best value.”

This is ironic in a nation that made higher education more accessible and affordable in the three decades following the Second World War. The GI Bill of Rights included college benefits of $500 at a time when Harvard University’s tuition was $600. The 1965 Higher Education Act continued that commitment by increasing federal support for universities and introduced new grants and low-interest loans for students that brought in another generation of students who were often the first in their families to attend college. Unfortunately, as President Obama noted, over the past 30 years this trend has reversed at the same time states have contributed less and less to public colleges and universities. This means the financial burden for a college education now rests mainly on young Americans and their families. Acquiring high student debt is a terrible strategy for these young people and the entire nation.

The dirty little secret is that higher tuition is not a guarantee of higher quality. It is appalling that the major national publication ranking colleges and universities includes only five public institutions in its “best value” list. The average annual out-of-pocket cost for students attending these schools is just under $15,000 to over $30,000 per year, costs that are out of the reach of many Americans without also taking on high debt. The US News and World Report list sits in stark contrast to the White House College Affordability and Transparency Scorecard released this year that tends to favor public institutions. The Washington Monthly also has a new ranking system favoring public colleges and universities as providing the “best bang for the buck.” Today’s federal Pell Grants are limited to $5,645 for no more than 12 semesters. Students and their families are learning that graduating with high student debt is a burden that limits opportunity and may lead to a very bad economic future for the entire economy.

The policies President Obama announced last week are a step in the right direction. All universities and colleges should be held accountable for helping students graduate, but the public universities need the resources to help those who arrive at college less well prepared. Students from more privileged families generally have support necessary for their success. Public universities that reach out to first-generation students and those from families with more limited resources need the funding to compete with the private colleges and universities for high-quality faculty and the wide range of support services necessary to advance student success.

As late as 1930, only 50 percent of 14- to 17-year-olds attended high school. The onset of the Great Depression forced thousands of schools to close their doors or shorten school terms. President Franklin Roosevelt responded by calling on Congress to help. In 1933, the New Deal paid the salaries of teachers employed in school districts that had run out of money. Work-relief programs like the Works Progress Administration paid for the construction of thousands of new high schools. The New Deal’s National Youth Administration (NYA) sweetened the pot by offering modest stipends to young people who stayed in school and earned a high school diploma. The NYA also provided stipends for students who attended college. In 1937, partly resulting from New Deal policies and a change in public attitudes, for the first time in American history, the majority of the nation’s 17-year-olds earned a high school diploma.

Today 30 percent of American adults hold at least a bachelor’s degree. The rising cost of a college education means that only 7 percent of recent college graduates come from the lowest economic quartile of American families. In 1970, that share was 12 percent. We are going backwards at a time when a college education is even more important for success as an adult. Universities should continually work to make classes accessible and provide for assessing what students learn. Online courses, flexible class scheduling, and alternate locations should be on the agenda for every public college and university. Students must also be held accountable for their own academic progress in exchange for greater public investment.

The devil is always in the details, but I believe that the nation’s colleges and universities are up to the challenge. Besides shrinking public funding over the last three decades, universities have weakened the academic core of their institutions by creating an excessive number of professional schools that compete with their own colleges of arts and sciences. For the future, the arts and sciences must focus on bringing these core disciplines into the 21st century through innovations that offer students the skills they needed to be successful in a more technological and global economy.

The entire country has an interest in reversing the trend that started 30 years ago. As President Obama said in Buffalo last Thursday, “This country is only going to be as strong as its next generation. I have confidence that our nation’s colleges and universities will step up...and lead the way to do the right thing for students.”

—Kriste Lindenmeyer is dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, Rutgers University—Camden.