University Presidents Grapple with Affordability

What can be done to make college affordable? How are colleges to remain fiscally viable while also making a college education possible to more people? These and other questions were discussed at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities’ meeting in Washington, D.C., this week.

I serve on the board of this organization, which represents the interests of independent higher education to the U.S. government. We gathered shortly after President Obama’s rousing speech on the future of higher education at the University of Michigan. As most of you are probably aware, the president proposed the expansion of federal aid programs for students, including college work/study, but he also called for colleges and universities to limit their tuition increases. He noted that the government was tired of increasing federal aid by $500 to $1,000 just to see tuition go up by the same amount. Thus, he also called for “price controls” on institutions that continued to raise tuition above the consumer price index.

We heard from both Democrats and Republicans on the same issue during the week, and it is clear that not all on either side of the political aisle are supportive of the president’s proposals. At the same time, all of the politicians seemed to agree that college costs are “out of control” and they want to do something about it. Exactly what that might mean no one is sure at the moment. NAICU President David Warren believes that, however the debate turns out, this may be a major turning point in the history of American higher education.

The NAICU meetings do an excellent job of connecting college presidents with congressional leadership and introducing us to key research affecting major issues in higher education. This year, we heard from two economists, Archibald and Feldman, who recently completed a book entitled Why Does College Cost so Much? They suggested that while it is true that tuition increases always rise faster than CPI, it is not because colleges are letting prices spiral out of control. Most of the public does not understand our industry.

Over time, we have found ways in the manufacturing sector of our economy to make manufactured goods using mechanized robots instead of people. The resulting efficiency of manufacturing increases quality and lowers price. They also suggest that these conditions are not present in any service industry in our economy. Higher education is a very labor-intensive service industry focused on the development of young men and women. The same conditions exist in other service areas of our economy. Thus, the price of a college education continues to rise naturally. (They also noted that increasing use of technology drives up the price of higher education rather than down.)

While Archibald and Feldman explained the reasons why our costs rise, they agreed as well that one of our major challenges is that the wages of parents in all categories of the economy have not increased for the past 10 years. The price of higher education is taking a more significant portion of a family’s income than it was 10 years ago and, as a result, parents have become very price sensitive. States have also decreased student-centered need grants, further eroding the support parents have had for higher education. As parents look at options available to them, they are increasingly more likely to encourage their children to consider community colleges or state universities during this recessionary period. We learned that in order to retain and keep students, private universities have had to further “discount” their tuition, further eroding their ability to keep up with cost escalation.

As I sit in the audience in some of these meetings, I sometimes think to myself: “Where is the good news?” Perhaps our cost model is understandable, but our parents’ ability to pay for what we do may be eroding. I wanted to ask: “Does anyone have a positive suggestion for change?” Fortunately, somebody (probably most of us) was thinking the same thing and someone else beat me to the question. Several speakers offered excellent suggestions for future planning.

First, like it or not, we are going to have to find ways to reduce our costs, and that means we will redesign some of what we do. We have to make sure we focus on what is core to our mission and success – for most of us that will be student learning (whether graduate, undergraduate or the co-curricular program). The methods by which we accomplish learning may have to change, but we must ensure that quality in learning is central to our efforts. Institutions that will thrive in the next 10 years will be those that remain mission centric and find ways to reduce or change administrative operations that still achieve important mission goals but at a reduced cost.

Second, thriving institutions will focus on their “difference.” When it comes to George Fox, what is our unique place in the higher education system of the Northwest? How do we tell our story so that our alumni and future students hear it well and resonate with who we are becoming? Our vision is “to become one of the most innovative and engaging universities in the western United States known for academic excellence and for connecting the message of Jesus Christ to the global challenges and opportunities of the future.” How do we make that known?

Third, institutions that succeed will champion student success. They will focus on attraction, belonging, engagement and connectivity. The data across the United States suggests that when students find a connection they stay at a university, they do well in the classroom, and they complete their degree on time.

There were many other suggestions, but these three seemed to be stated frequently. All the speakers made it clear that the highly endowed colleges will continue to operate as they have for generations. Their money enables them to work outside the economic conditions that most institutions face.

We will see many challenges come to us over the next five years, and our ability to work together will be key to our ability to flourish during a time of retraction. Some of our “models” will change, but the transformative nature of our student work will remain consistent. We are preparing students well to make a kingdom difference in the communities that they join when they leave George Fox

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2 Responses to University Presidents Grapple with Affordability

  1. Debbie Voyles says:

    I am a parent struggling to pay for my daughter Krissy’s education at George Fox. Would I pull her out and send her to a less expensive state college? Never! What Krissy is receiving at Fox goes well beyond the degrees she is working towards. She is being challenged spiritually and academically. She knows her teachers and fellow students and they know her. Krissy is taking the talents God gifted her with and seeking his will in how she should use them. She is learning to look beyond her comfort zone and see a world of opportunities. Krissy’s upcoming trip to China is a life changing event that wouldn’t happen if Fox didn’t have a global heart. Education is so much more than completing a course of study. I’m grateful that President Baker and the staff at George Fox University understands that and allows my daughter to reach her full potential as a student and a child of God.

    • robinbaker says:

      Debbie — Thank you for your very thoughtful comments. Your affirmation of our work with Krissy is much appreciated. Her China experience will indeed be life changing. We consistently are reminded of the importance of keeping our education at George Fox as affordable as possible. Please know that we will keep working hard to ensure that GFU provides an excellent and affordable Christian university education.

      Robin Baker