hanks to proposals from Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for tuition- and debt-free higher education, college affordability has become one of the flashpoint issues of this electoral season. But the presidential candidates’ plans focus almost exclusively on ways to subsidize education costs. Rarely do the two parties ever discuss ways to slow or reverse the quickly rising tuition prices and other fees for students entering the higher education system.
There’s an enormous literature exploring the various factors driving the rise of college prices. Over the past couple of decades, the cost of going to college has increased at 2.5 times the rate of inflation, rising from about $9,620 to $21,000 for the average college student over the past 30 years.
What strategies should the next president propose to keep colleges and universities from increasing the costs of attendance? Is this a worthy goal?
Lynn Pasquerella is president of the Association of American College and Universities, a philosopher and host of Northeast Public Radio’s “The Academic Minute.”
The ideal of higher education as a public good — once inextricably linked to the American Dream — has been all but abandoned in favor of the college degree as a private commodity. The narrow focus on earning power, coinciding with demographic shifts in the number and diversity of college students, has fueled the understanding of college as a purely private benefit rather than a good for all.
Our colleges should instead be seen as a means of strengthening our democracy as well as bolstering our nation’s economy. The next president should work with leaders in higher education to reclaim the mission of higher education, which should allow us to pinpoint the costly factors that are driving up prices and crowding out under-served student populations.
Community colleges and other state institutions enroll 80 percent of all students, and yet public education is becoming increasingly privatized due to decreases in state support and the failure of federal student aid to keep pace with increased costs. Indeed, the maximum Pell Grant now covers only about 30 percent of the price of a four-year public education — an all-time low. As a result, public colleges and universities have had to do more with less, leading to a burgeoning reliance on contingent faculty, larger classes, greater numbers of out-of-state students and widening gaps between public and private schools in terms of per-student spending.
Formulaic, short-term solutions to fill deficits — such as cutting faculty, increasing enrollment and using technology to bridge the gap — have proved unsuccessful. To accomplish long-term reform and refocus college as a public good, the real drivers of the cost of education need to be interrogated, including the current reward structures within ranking systems.
Many colleges and universities are caught up in a veritable arms race that encourages excess by allocating scarce resources to the recruitment of the largest number of students with the highest academic profiles in order to improve their selectivity rankings by turning more of them away. Meanwhile, tenure and promotion processes often privilege publishing in arcane peer-reviewed journals over excellence in teaching, advising and other services that we know have a disproportionately positive influence on under-served students.
Quality and equity in education must be made national priorities. Incentives such as federal grants should be provided for colleges and universities to lower costs per student through the creation of institutional partnerships among different types of colleges and universities. This will allow institutions to commit to resource sharing of faculty, technology and services aimed at developing equity-minded practices and demonstrated achievement of student learning outcomes. The government should further explore sponsoring programs at institutions that make a commitment to creating pathways for academic achievement reaching out to under-served segments of society, such as the Second Chance Pell Program for prisoners.
It is also important, now more than ever, to respond to accusations from politicians that a college education — more specifically, one in the liberal arts and sciences — has become irrelevant and illegitimate. The next president should recognize these charges as collusion in the growth of intellectual oligarchy, where only the very richest and most prestigious institutions preserve access to the liberal arts traditions.
While many have acknowledged that higher education is essential to equality of opportunity, the reality is that a growing economic segregation in higher education threatens to undermine our nation’s historic mission of educating for democracy. Only when equity is combined with access will the full promise of American higher education truly be fulfilled.