Colleges and universities are determined to avoid drastic change, despite seemingly turbulent times. Most institutions are finding ways to make improvements within their current models, according to a panel of presidents from tuition-dependent universities and colleges.
“Universities and colleges today are faced with the challenge of preparing students for a rapidly evolving global economy, while at the same time doing so in a cost effective way for our students,” said David E. Van Zandt, president of The New School, in a press release leading up to a panel discussion on Dec. 3 called The Future of Higher Education, which he moderated.
The first question Van Zandt asked was whether or not the current model of higher education needs to be thrown out and recreated.
“Imagine what would happen if Harvard said, ‘We are going out of business, and we are going to have a new Harvard,’” said panelist Debora Spar, president of Barnard College. According to Spar, there are brands that exist in diplomas, and alumni carry those brands. Alumni may not stand for such drastic change. “The model is not going to go away,” said Spar.
The New School in New York hosted the event, where four presidents, each from a different tuition-dependent school, discussed a wide range of current happenings in higher education, their thoughts, and how they are responding. The event was streamed live.
“There is a lot in the press—every day you see something,” said Van Zandt, referring to the news reports he has read on topics such as the costs of higher education, arguments on why to even bother with college, or concerns that college is too expensive and behind the times.
According to Van Zandt, if drastic cuts were made in tuition, then the tuition-dependent institutions would be entirely different from what they are now. The other option, he said, is to get focused on a small number of things that they do well—and do those only—rather than trying to be multi-appealing.
Panelist Stephen J. Friedman, president of Pace University and former commissioner of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, said that there are great savings to be found through using facilities more effectively. Institutions could add more students per class, for example, or take a European approach and have one building focused solely on academics, where student life, extra activities, and sports would become a job for the campus community.
It is a challenge to make money in education, because as Friedman said, while businesses increase revenue through productivity and selling more products, education institutions cannot do that.
“Our analog of that is admitting more students,” Friedman said, and “there are simply limits on every institution’s ability to do that,” such as demographics or the character of the institution. Van Zandt agreed, but added that prices are being raised instead.
Not far from the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, Alabama has been having trouble for years with a state Prepaid Affordable College Tuition (PACT) Program. In many ways, Alabama’s situation is reflective of the nation’s trouble in higher education: high debt, a bad economy, and rising prices.
“Imagine what would happen if Harvard said ‘We are going out of business and we are going to have a new Harvard.’”
—Debora Spar, president, Barnard College
Once a promising way to pay for college, PACT can no longer keep pace with fast-rising tuition costs and closed the doors to new applicants in 2009, just one year after the economic decline in 2008. They are hardly paying the existing bill.
Spar recalled what her father once told her: When he went to college, he could work a summer job to pay for the upcoming semester. Those days are gone.
In 1980–1981, the private and public four-year institution tuition average was $8,756, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In 2010–2011, the average tuition was $21,657.
Drastically lowering tuition, at least for private universities that depend upon tuition, appears impossible. Those institutions have faculty on tenure and salaries to provide, according to Spar, and they act as a “redistributing mechanism.”
The institutions receive funds from wealthy parents and give funds in financial aid to lower-income students. Thus, financial aid drives their costs. But there are ways to reduce their own costs in order to keep tuition costs down, or at least to keep tuition from being raised.
Dr. Edwin H. Welch, president of the University of Charleston (UC), a private university in West Virginia, recognized that its tuition rates were a problem when nearly 40 of its students who were enrolled and already setup on campus decided that they did not want the student debt and canceled their enrollments. Welch said that it has become a national phenomenon.
They did not want to lose students again, so in 2011, UC lowered its tuition by 22 percent and has kept the rate below $20,000.
“There were middle-class families who were eliminating private colleges and universities from their lists because they perceive them to be too expensive, and they did not understand how financial aid works,” said Welch.
Now one year after the tuition decrease, Welch said that UC has not lost students, and they have in fact seen an increase in the number of students from middle-income families and an increase in the number of enrollment inquiries.
“The net revenue per student actually went up, so we were collecting additional dollars from each student who was here—despite the decrease in the advertised price,” said Welch.
In looking for other ways to reduce cost, UC is sharing resources such as buildings and faculty with other schools.
“We are trying to keep down the costs so that we keep down price,” said Welch.
Partnering with other schools rather than competing and dropping departments or programs with low enrollment can save costs. The question remains whether or not students and faculty will agree to those cuts.
In early December 2012, over 150 students at Emory University in Atlanta protested the university’s cuts in its liberal arts programs.
Another concern, according to Spar, is that there is a real risk of being “encroached upon by lower cost and lower value models,” like online education. But according to Spar, online learning has improved.
Massive open online courses (MOOCs), which are free education offered by top universities available to anyone online, such as Coursera, are not a threat to colleges and universities, said Spar, and she thinks that MOOCs are a good thing that can really help people.
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