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As college acceptance letters begin popping up in mailboxes across the county, incoming students are left with the daunting task of choosing the right school. While cost has always been a consideration, more students than ever before are now considering it a key factor—not only in terms of which school to attend, but whether to go to college at all.

rising cost of college
Alan G. Walker

Consider the financial barriers. Tuition at public four-year institutions rose more than 8 percent between 2010-11 and 2011-12, according to a recent report by the College Board. That’s more than two and a half times the rate of inflation. To cover these rising costs, today’s students are borrowing twice the amount they did just a decade ago. Now, for the first time in history, student-loan debt has surpassed credit-card debt, according to recent reports from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the U.S. Department of Education and other sources. American students are now more than $1 trillion in debt for their studies; American consumers owe $828 billion to their credit-card companies.

As recent graduates struggle to repay their student loans, we are faced with the reality that there’s a fundamental structural failure of higher education.

Today’s colleges and universities are stuck in a twentieth-century mindset. They’re still designed to cater to students coming straight from high school who want a traditional on-campus experience. And they’re trying to fund their institutions using the old tried-and-true methods like endowments, grants and donations—only those methods aren’t so tried and true anymore. This failure to evolve has driven up costs, hurting students and those who view higher education as out of reach.

Our system must change—and it can change. At Upper Iowa University, for example, we believe so passionately in containing the cost of education that we have just moved forward with a $50 million capital improvement program without relying on fundraising, which means we can enhance our students’ experience without making them responsible for the bill. And we were able to do this because we’ve moved beyond the traditional university structure.

We offer four modes of study that allow for flexibility to accommodate the lifestyles of today’s student body. Along with the traditional on-campus experience, students can attend other educational facilities we have located throughout the country and even the world—or they can be part of our distinguished online study program. While many schools may offer similar options, UIU has integrated the programs so that students can take courses via any of the four modes and earn the same degree they would under the traditional four-year model.

Colleges and universities are pumping so much of their budgets and alumni donations into building new buildings and updating campus facilities that it leaves little room for anything else. By decreasing the need for bricks and mortar, and providing new ways for students to achieve their desired level of education, UIU is able to offer an aggressive financial-aid system, ensuring that all eligible students—no matter what modes of study they chose—receive financial assistance. UIU’s net price has decreased each year since 2007-08, allowing our students to leave with less debt, on average, than students do at most comparable institutions in Iowa.

As a tuition-dependent institution that is focused on keeping tuition within reach for all students, we have found that integrating our back-office operations (such as marketing and enrollment services) has allowed for a more automated and seamless method of doing business. By reining in administrative costs and leveraging technology, we can focus on improving academic quality without raising tuition.

This new structure has allowed us to generate different revenue streams, not limiting us to government grants or an endowment for support. By taking a nontraditional approach, we are able to focus on what the future of education holds, demonstrating the importance of providing options for today’s nontraditional students.

The U.S. higher-education system is at a critical point in its history—and it’s not too late to evolve for the benefit of students and the industry itself. It’s time we stop viewing higher education as a luxury and put it back within reach of those who wish to pursue it.

Alan G. Walker is president of Upper Iowa University in Fayette, Iowa.

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