Over the last several decades, many colleges and universities have been aggressive players in an amenities arms race. Students from wealthy families demanded small class sizes, single rooms and student fitness centers that resemble training facilities for the nation’s Olympic athletes. Institutions operated with an if-we-build-it-they-will-come mentality. But for today’s students that truly is a field of dreams.
Many colleges and universities are in desperate need of reform. They face challenges with high sticker prices, higher discount rates and even higher financial need from students. Combine these with increases in faculty salaries, the cost of benefits, and deferred maintenance, and the current equation for many institutions is irreconcilable. While the academy addresses expenditures, it must not make cuts on the backs of the neediest students. It is in everyone’s interest to evolve and find sustainable ways to control costs, maintain quality, and improve educational attainment.
The question is how to reduce costs while maintaining quality, so that more students from low- and middle-income families can afford an education that improves their opportunities. Increased state and federal support seems unlikely in the current political and economic environment. Therefore, innovations that reduce costs while maintaining educational quality are needed.
A post-secondary education should not just be for those who can afford it. Asking wealthy institutions to use more of their resources for low- and middle-income students and less for high-income students will help.
We have to recognize, however, that it is difficult for any one college or university to do this on their own, since it puts them at a competitive disadvantage. Recent commitments on the part of schools to increase their socioeconomic diversity through such collaborations as the American Talent Initiative demonstrate commendable progress. These institutions account for too small a share of American higher education to address the problems on their own, however. While doing more for low- and middle-income students will help and is justified by the subsidies schools receive from the public sector, sixty-eight institutions can only be a part of the solution.
Other private, non-profit colleges without the wealth of these more selective schools are facing the more challenging environment, yet some are innovating in interesting ways that will help them control costs and improve quality. A set of small liberal arts colleges concerned about enrollments is experimenting with using technology to share courses, support their curricula, and reduce costs. Ohio Wesleyan University is on the case, making shifts in curriculum and financial aid. These are schools that educate their fair share of low- and middle-income students, and any innovations that reduce costs and sustain quality are welcome.
There are also signs that innovation is increasing at larger, public institutions with the scale needed to really move the needle. The University Innovation Alliance is one example. Their experiments with the impact of good, low-cost, technology-enabled advising shows early success at increasing student retention and success. Recent work from the Equality of Opportunity Project has also identified a set of lower-cost colleges and universities that are doing a great job at helping students move up the economic ladder. Understanding how some schools are accomplishing this will help other institutions improve their outcomes across American higher education at a cost that is affordable to more families.
If we want to increase educational attainment numbers in America, it will take additional resources. And, the more we can learn about improving outcomes while controlling costs, the more we can accomplish with the resources currently available. Absent changes in public support, higher-quality, lower-cost options for students and their families will increase opportunity. It will be important for the public sector to continue existing levels of support, including maintaining student access to Federal lending programs. Access to loans allows lower- and middle-income families to undertake investments in education that all the evidence suggests has a positive return on investment. And, the more we can control costs and improve quality, the higher this return on investment will be.
We need all types of colleges and universities to contribute. The wealthier schools can use more of their resources to help lower- and middle-income students succeed, by increasing need-based financial aid spending. And, policymakers could encourage this by tying access to public subsidies to commitment to greater institutional need-based financial aid. While less well-endowed private institutions face both rising costs and families with fewer resources and public universities reckon with reduced public support, many of these institutions are finding ways to improve student success while controlling costs. The rest of higher education needs to learn from their efforts.
Catharine Bond Hill is Managing Director of Ithaka S + R and president emerita of Vassar College.