Wednesday, August 31, 2011

When the Tide Goes Out



When the Tide Goes Out  
In their recent article, “The Debt Crisis at American Colleges” published in The Atlantic Online (8/23/11) and drawn from their book, Higher Education?,  Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus strip away the camouflage that covers up the reasons for the dramatic increases in college tuition and costs over the last 20 years. They reveal an assumptive arrangement in which students (and their parents) pay for the research agenda and myriad other hidden costs that have little or nothing to do with the actual teaching and learning enterprise they think they are enrolling to get. Furthermore,  the authors calculate and introduce into the equation the massive loan debt that accumulates as a consequence, beggaring future generations and weakening the economy.  I addressed this issue in passing in Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent, but Hacker and Dreifus really hit the ball out of the park.
I have heard it said that …”it is only when the tide goes out that you see who isn’t wearing a bathing suit”. And the current economic situation with downward pressure on Pell grants, dropping state appropriations, sagging endowments for those lucky enough to have them, and massive unemployment certainly qualifies as “the tide going out”. Here’s what the “no bathing suit” picture looks like.
Institutions, which for years have raised tuition by the approximate or exact amount of increases in state and federal student aid programs, are caught short with artificially high costs and equally high tuition relative to their sectors. And the learners who for years had only incrementally increasing out-of-pocket costs thanks to the same increases in financial aid and loan availability are now squarely under the gun to meet rising tuition costs with higher personal debt. For the institutions, further tuition increases are the only tool left in the traditional toolbox.
As the article closes, Hacker and Dreifus offer several suggestions about “what you should do” for students and parents going forward. And correctly, they give examples of community college – state university articulation paths and great, low cost campus programs that have escaped wider notice because of our infatuation with what Jane Wellman calls the “medallion” universities and colleges.  I would like to offer two additional suggestions that call on institutions to make changes in order to hold up their end of the bargain.
First, take a page out of Michael Crow’s playbook at Arizona State University. He is committed to dramatically increasing the student population without increasing the University’s footprint. How? By institutionalizing blended learning and requiring all undergraduates to take an increasing portion of their program on line.
Second, do what Kaplan University has done. Give new students the first 5 weeks free to see if they want to and are able to do the academic work required. Dismiss those that are failing or choose to withdraw and assign them to other avenues. And bill those who are engaged positively with the curriculum. This approach, the “Kaplan Commitment”, has cost the university a great deal of money. But it is the right thing to do and has led to a significant increase in academic quality.
I have heard others, usually from the public sector, say that they cannot afford to do this. Not accurate.  In fact, it will cost them less than it costs Kaplan because where our tuition constitutes 100% of the revenue, their tuition is net of other public appropriations. The traditional tool box, and the assumptions within it, need changing. Thanks to Hacker and Dreifus for getting this argument aired in public.

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