Here is a guest post from Alan Walker, president of Upper Iowa University. The private, nonprofit university is unusual in its “global” format: Most of its 6,000-plus students attend through distance education programs in the United States and abroad.

You hear the complaints every day in newspapers, on TV, and on campuses. The costs of getting a college education are simply too high, and more importantly, the costs keep outpacing the cost of living and most other standards every year. Students and their families are having to make painful decisions to either forego college altogether, or saddle themselves with massive debt.

 This is not “just the way it is.”  This is a fundamental structural failure of higher education. 

Most of our higher educational institutions today are nicely set up for education in the 20th century (and perhaps the early 20th century).  They are predominantly bricks and mortar, and if they offer online education, it is often separate from the degree programs offered for attendance on campus.

 At the same time that federal grants and other funding to help students afford a college education are declining, colleges and universities keep pushing the bar of affordability higher and higher. 

 So what do I mean by a “fundamental structural failure?” Structure in the provision of education means adapting to the realities and needs of students in our society. Clearly, there are several basic realities that we have to deal with. The first is the quality of the educational experience.  The second is the economic climate that students, their families and higher educational institutions find themselves in. And third is the way education is delivered.

 There’s no argument about the first reality. Nonprofit colleges and universities such as Upper Iowa University generally do a good job in continually seeking to improve the quality of the educational experience on their campuses. At Upper Iowa, for instance, we seek out teaching professors who can lift their students to high levels of knowledge and excitement of learning. We’ve added new, state-of-the-art facilities to make the overall experience more rewarding. In point of fact, most schools spend a good bit of their time and effort and money on improving the educational experience.

 It’s in the second and third realities that colleges and universities seem to falter. It’s no secret to the millions of students and families throughout the nation that the current economic times are not just difficult, but brutal. Savings and 401k accounts have been battered. Available sources of lending have largely dried up, and many people just don’t know what to do.

But that doesn’t seem to have had any effect on colleges and universities who throttle forward in their spending, their fundraising campaigns, and the costs they place on students and their families. 

That gets us to the third and crucial reality – how education is delivered. This is really important, because it has a huge influence on the costs of education to our students, as well as on a recognition of the reality that many of today’s students cannot commit to the traditional four-year college structure.

 Largely because of the economic realities, the need to offer a structure that can still accomplish the student’s educational goals at an affordable price is imperative.

 At Upper Iowa University, we’ve adopted an innovative structure to solve these problems. There are essentially four avenues leading to a degree: a traditional campus such as we have in Fayette, Iowa; a system of educational centers throughout the Midwest and South; a comprehensive online degree program; and international campuses in the Far East

 Taken one by one, you might say that many schools offer several of these, so what’s the big deal? The big deal is that the Upper Iowa program is fully integrated together, so that a student can take courses at any of the four delivery systems and earn the same degree. That means a student could spend a year or two on our traditional campus, another year at an educational center, attend an international study program, and also take online courses – and the resulting degree is the same as if he or she spent four years on campus in Fayette.

 This is enormously important is recognizing the flexibility necessary in delivering the educational product.  By doing this, students can work at a job if they need to, but still have the option to enjoy the fullest possible college experience.

It also has a profound economic effect in enabling us to keep costs down. Our students leave Upper Iowa University with less debt than at most other comparable schools. More than 99 percent of our students receive some type of financial assistance through Upper Iowa. For the university itself, we’ve been able to move forward with a $50 million capital program without relying on fundraising to continually enhance the college experience for our students.

 Being a tuition-dependent university presents challenges in keeping tuition within reach for students. We found that by reorganizing back-office operations associated with enrollment, we realized opportunities that were not possible under the historical method for doing business. Our enrollment and marketing are now automated and seamless, creating scalability of present administrative, budgetary and technological resources that allow us to continue keeping tuition costs down and improving overall academic quality.

 The problem of high costs in higher education are largely a problem caused by too many institutions being hidebound by the structures of the past. If they will open their eyes to the realities that need to be faced, we would see education become more available, more affordable and more flexible.