From the Goucher Quarterly, Spring 2012

“Higher education has remained fundamentally unchanged since its inception, with most universities and college [sic] relying on professors lecturing to a classroom of 18- to 22-year-old students who live on or nearby the campus, adding significantly to their cost of attending college. To help reduce tuition and fees, institutions of higher education should be looking for innovative ways to incorporate new technology and better address student needs.”

So spoke U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina, chair of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education & Workforce Training, last November 30, as she opened a hearing on Capitol Hill on “Keeping College Within Reach: Discussing Ways Institutions Can Streamline Costs and Reduce Tuition.”

There is nothing new about a periodic congressional assault on American higher education for costing too much, accomplishing too little, or simply not meeting the country’s needs. This is, by the way, a bipartisan instinct, often— though not always—driven by good intentions. What is different about a presidential election year is that the rhetoric generally escalates dramatically, and the proposed solutions, if any, are often unrealistic and unlikely to be enacted.

But the recognition of two stark and disturbing facts punctuates the dialogue this time around:
     • The “sticker price” of college (before taking into account any financial aid) has risen much faster than the overall cost of living in the United States during the past decade. According to the College Board, in-state tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities have increased approximately 72 percent since 2001. At comparable private, non-profit institutions, tuition has gone up 61.8 percent on average in the same period, but they still cost almost twice as much as the publics. Here at Goucher, tuition alone has increased from $22,000 in the fall of 2001 to $36,011 this academic year, but we are a bargain compared to many of our competitors and peers.
     • Americans’ attainment of college degrees, not so long ago the highest in the world, has plunged. The College Board says the United States now ranks 12th among 36 developed countries, and other studies put us even lower. With only about 70 percent of American students graduating from high school, the college-completion rate is doomed from the start. (For comparison, South Korea has a 96 percent high school graduation rate.) Differences in access and achievement according to race and class make the statistics even more alarming.

Financial aid, both need- and merit-based and from a variety of public and private sources, helps to level the playing field somewhat and to urge people toward college when they might never have considered it. The federal budget crunch, however, is likely to reduce the amount of assistance coming from Washington and may even raise significantly the interest rate on student loans. And there are other worrisome initiatives in the air.

President Obama, no doubt with a mix of good intentions and electoral savvy, took up these issues in his State of the Union message this year and, a few days later, in a speech at the University of Michigan. “Let me put colleges and universities on notice,” he said, with a firm tone; “if you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down.”

For most private institutions—struggling to keep the academic program excellent, financial aid adequate, compensation for faculty and staff fair, the spending rate on the endowment prudent, and our infrastructure sound—there is not a great deal of wiggle room. At Goucher, where we pride ourselves on small classes across a broad range of disciplines and close relationships in a tight-knit community, it is not easy to find ways to increase “productivity.” One thing we know for certain is that cutting government support will not help.

Another disturbing instinct would have colleges and universities judged on the basis of the job placements immediately achieved by their graduates—as some put it, the issue is how “ready” they are for the workforce.

At the risk of sounding elitist, many of us worry about being required one day to transform our curriculum to be sure we are training people specifically for the factory floor, the office cubicle, or some of the high-tech jobs that may not even survive the decade in which they are created. Of course we want our students to find work and move toward careers that are rewarding both intellectually and financially, but recent research by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, among others, demonstrates that today’s employers are not looking just for people who know how to pass tests and then to make, promote, and sell particular widgets, but for those who can think critically, express themselves in writing and speech, conduct research, and work in groups to solve complex problems—to put it crassly, invent new widgets or figure out how to do away with widgets altogether.

More than ever, today’s college students need a broad background that equips them to understand other cultures (say, by studying abroad), appreciate environmental challenges, and contribute to the public good. It doesn’t hurt to learn along the way to recognize historical trends, read Shakespeare, appreciate music, detect pseudoscience, and understand art and architecture. One can only hope, as the government goes about developing a “scorecard” for use in comparing the results achieved by colleges, that these subtler issues will not be overlooked.