According to the results of a number of public opinion polls, we should not be surprised that many Americans fear that lack of affordability to attend college will cost them or their children a central part of the “American dream.” In a recent speech at the Federal Student Aid Fall Meeting in Nevada, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan referred to this increasing concern on the part of students and families. “Three in four Americans now say that college is too expensive for most people to afford. That belief is even stronger among young adults—three-fourths of whom believe that graduates today have more debt than they can manage.”
I welcome Sec. Duncan’s call for a national conversation about the issue of college cost. We know that college can be expensive, and that there’s more all parties involved can do to help make it more affordable.
But a major part of this conversation must focus on the massive state disinvestment in higher education. As the secretary also said in Nevada, “As all of you know, state spending on higher education is one of the biggest drivers of tuition growth at public institutions.”
This issue’s cover story, “State of the States: Navigating a Difficult Road,” looks at how higher education leaders are coping with these reductions while working to minimize tuition increases and protect the academic heart of their institutions. President JoAnn Gora of Ball State University offers an on-the-ground assessment of the state of play in Indiana. Her comments explain why she looks to the future with cautious optimism.
Tom Mortenson, senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Higher Education Opportunity, examines the data on declining state support and asks if we are heading toward a scenario in which state support for higher education declines to zero. From the perspective of private higher education, Laura Anglin, president of New York’s Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, addresses how and why current state leaders are embracing higher education as an economic driver.
As higher education confronts the fiscal challenges of the current economic downturn, the role of the consumer takes on even greater importance. Further, as students and families are increasingly squeezed, we are hearing tougher questions about the value we provide. These forces have led colleges and universities, as well as a host of others, to look not just at new business models but also at curricular reforms, including prior learning assessment, three-year degrees, and accelerated learning. The jury is still out on these efforts, and the bigger question is which, if any, will “go viral” within traditional higher education. Nevertheless, as we focus on ways to extend access by keeping the cost of a college education affordable without sacrificing quality, we must think creatively and entrepreneurially.
On that note, I want to extend a personal invitation to you to attend ACE’s 94th Annual Meeting, Ahead of the Curve, March 10-13 in Los Angeles. These and many other pressing questions will be on the agenda. Among those who will be speaking at the Annual Meeting are Sal Khan, founder of The Khan Academy; Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University; and Ron Brownstein and Charlie Cook, journalists and leading political commentators. Program and registration information are available at www.aceannualmeeting.org.
Molly Corbett Broad
American Council on Education