In 2019, Bill Conley, Vice President for Enrollment Management at Bucknell University noted in the Chronicle of Higher Education “the sharp rise in students aiming to attend lower-cost, high-profile public institutions. “The handwriting was probably on the wall.” The following month, Jon Boeckenstedt, Vice President of Enrollment Management at Oregon State University wrote that it was time to recognize “the elephant in the room” that “higher education has left its growth stage”
This was all before the pandemic, that was compared by Madeleine Rhyneer, a VP at an educational consulting firm, to the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. “In such a market, victory belongs to nimble institutions that pivot quickly and boldly…for institutions unable or unwilling to make thorny choices, extinction will soon follow.” In the same article, Boeckenstedt urges colleges to “consider students and their parents before you consider yourselves…Now might be the best time to think about eliminating archaic rules and processes that exist simply because no one has ever thought to change them, and to focus on how your students might benefit from changes.”
Despite the devastation, crises provide an opportunity for change and innovation. This might be the time for a bold initiative, an Affordable Education Act, where every student pays only what they can afford through a redesigned FAFSA which returns all assets (including housing equity and retirement funds) and income to its formula. The federal government would, as they do in the ACA for health care, make up the difference between the what families can afford and what public college costs.
The biggest obstacle to access to higher education is not about opportunity and access; it is cost and debt. Richard Clark, Georgia Tech’s Director of Admission, comments that “representation of middle-income students has continued to dissipate, effectively creating a financial barbell” at public institutions. Federal grants only go to most economically disadvantaged and the maximum federally subsidized student loans cover only a small fraction of the costs at most public residential colleges, making college unaffordable for many in the middle class.
This Act would need to mandate cost controls at public universities, possibly by something such as the annual Consumer Price Index. College costs have gone up twice the rate of inflation for the past three decades. There has been an arms race, not only between public colleges but also with private colleges, to compete with the best facilities and services for students. Every college campus seems to sport brand new facilities, from climbing walls and wave pools to new apartment style dorms, to attract new students. We have to stop using public funds to pay to compete with private colleges for boutique student experiences.
The football coach at my state’s flagship university, Rutgers, not exactly a national powerhouse, earns $5 million a year, with over $7 million for his coaching staff, use of a private jet or first-class travel, a car, country club membership, a clothing allowance, and on and on. The college president earns over $1 million. The Women’s basketball coach is scheduled earn over $1 million. This is, frankly, obscene. I am no fan politically of Purdue’s President Mitch Daniels, but I do have to give him credit for freezing his school’s tuition for the 9th consecutive year. Purdue’s tuition and fees for in-state students are under $10,000; Rutgers? Over $15,000.
With the reduction of funding from statehouses and the federal government, public colleges began operating as businesses, increasing income flow from full-pay students and out-of-state and international students. It is time to go back to the future, with an Affordable Education Act operating like the GI Bill after WWII. Public colleges need to again be the engine to support equality, middle class growth and access to post-secondary education without requiring students to take on unsustainable debt.