Monday, January 30, 2012

The High Cost of Higher Ed – Do We Really Need the Climbing Wall?

Last week I called a business school buddy, my annual homage to his birthday. When I asked about his kids, he shared his relief and joy at writing the final tuition check with the last of his crew graduating from college this spring. I must confess; I was suddenly struck by “final college tuition payment envy.” With twelve semesters of tuition payments left to pay (and counting!), assuming my three daughters stick to the four-year plan, I am singing the middle class college cost blues.

Like so many others looking for a ray of college affordability hope, I was wishful that President Obama would propose something truly revolutionary to help all Americans afford the dream of sending their children to college. I can’t fault our president that his proposal announced last week will barely make a dent for lower income families struggling to afford college and will provide little if any relief for the middle class. The cost of college is so alarmingly out of control that increasing the availability of Perkins loans for lower income families is like trying to protect a gaping wound with one of those pinky-size band aids. The cost of college today has put affordability out of reach for most Americans, including many who are comfortably middle class. Nothing short of a complete and drastic overhaul of the higher education system will adequately address the issue. But for that to happen we need to understand how we’ve enabled this craziness.

Colleges and universities are now on the defensive, having for years fueled an arms race enticing students with state-of-the-art athletic, academic and dining facilities, deluxe dorms, and the best amenities that their spiraling tuition and fees could buy. But before we place all of the blame on colleges for escalating costs, ask yourself if you weren’t wowed by the climbing wall and yes, lazy rivers (!) that are becoming the hallmarks of college athletic facilities across the country. Have we inadvertently sent the message that this is what we value in a college education?

When I meet a family for the first time I ask both parents and the student to prioritize their wish list for college; reputation, cost, academics, dorms, location, school spirit, Greek life, athletics, etc…what is truly important for a college experience? Why aren’t academics always at the top of the list? As the total bill at the most expensive colleges approaches $250,000, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves if our students really need the climbing wall?

No amount of government assistance can even begin to make a dent in this pricey behemoth we know as higher education. President Obama can threaten to cut off federal aid to colleges that do not meet certain cost reduction expectations. However, colleges have already been through several rounds of layoffs. For many colleges, reducing faculty further will have a detrimental impact on the quality of education that they deliver. And let’s not lose sight of the fact that most academicians teach for the love of it, not the money...they are not raking it in. (However, some college presidents’ and coaches’ salaries, in my opinion, should be fair game for the chopping block.) The more practical option for schools is to think more strategically about programs. Are colleges becoming too creative and stretched thin by the panoply of majors that they offer just to keep up with the latest trends led by their academic competition (another arms race)? Why haven’t more schools considered forming consortium with neighboring institutions as a cost effective way to continue offering many academic options, similar to the collaboration established by Wellesley (liberal arts), Babson (business) and Olin (engineering) two years ago?

Colleges will have to be creative in figuring out how to trim down their cost structures burdened with many fixed expenses. We, the consumers, can help by sending a message to the colleges about what we really value. Free laundry, palatial dorms and yes, that ubiquitous climbing wall are all nice-to-have, but not the reason we send our kids to college. The next time you are impressed by the over-the-top athletic facilities on a college campus, especially if your child is not athletic, catch yourself and ask this question instead. How will this enhance the investment return on my child's four year college education? When put in those terms, the climbing wall is no longer so impressive.

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