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The President's New Higher Education Agenda

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President Obama's recent announcement of new administration programs aimed at addressing the spiraling cost of higher education has not been received positively by much of academia. The reasons are understandable and predictable. The President's proposed new college rating system would reward colleges that charge lower tuition rates, those that enroll large numbers of economically disadvantaged students, and those that can demonstrate a real return on investment, i.e. those whose graduates can obtain well-paying jobs upon graduation.

The President's concerns are well-founded. Tuition rates at private and public colleges and universities have been rising much faster than any inflation rate for three decades or more. In addition, the fact that the employment rate for 4-year college graduates is so much higher than the national average is a clear indication that we are fast becoming a knowledge economy. A bachelor's degree is now seen by more and more people as the ticket to a middle-class life. Yet, for even well-placed graduates, the debt incurred by many students in obtaining that degree reduces their actual take-home compensation for years after they graduate.

As president of Rochester Institute of Technology, I might be expected to applaud President Obama's agenda. This proposed rating system seems to fit my institution like a glove. RIT's tuition rate is about $10,000 lower per year than our peer institutions, 32% of our students are Pell-eligible (i.e. they are economically disadvantaged to the point where they can receive the highest level of federal and state assistance), and 95% of them are either employed within their profession or going to graduate school full-time within 120 days of graduation. So what's not to like?

Well, for one thing, such a program falsely equates a quality education with gainful employment upon graduation. Indeed, that may be one happy outcome of a college education, but it is most certainly not the only one worth considering. In addition to providing the nation with a skilled workforce, colleges and universities also play a crucial role in the development of an educated citizenry so essential to our democracy. If they are to make informed decisions, citizens need critical thinking skills and a broad base of cultural information. Toward that goal, college students should be exposed to the humanities and social sciences, to art and culture, and to mathematics and science beyond the specific requirements of a particular employment opportunity. That broader educational experience is what literally defines a Bachelor's degree in the U.S., and it contributes to a graduate's career success long after specific job skills have become outdated. It is the seeming failure of the administration to acknowledge this as an important outcome of a student's college experience that troubles many academics.

The critical reaction of the academic community to the President's proposals is, taken in that context, understandable. In addition, America's colleges and universities are widely believed to be the best in the world, and students from all over the world flock to U.S. institutions by the hundreds of thousands to take advantage of what American higher education has to offer. Many academics are asking, "Why doesn't the President focus on K-12, where we have a real problem, instead of beating up on our colleges and universities."

But I, for one, think that we in academia are being too defensive. We have, in fact, failed to control our costs and let competition for national rankings drive lower teaching loads and higher salaries for our faculty. We are paying senior university administrators like they are corporate officers, and we are using undergraduate tuition dollars to subsidize large research projects, Ph.D. programs, and intercollegiate athletic programs that should support themselves. Our students now enjoy residence halls that are nicer than what they will occupy when they leave campus, recreational facilities that are better than most private athletic clubs, and dining facilities that have turned into food courts offering everything from sushi to Mongolian barbecue. It's no surprise that people outside of academia wonder whether we have any connection with the real world in which they live and work.

Let's work with the administration to produce policies worthy of our highest aspirations and those of our students. Let's protect our core values while we work with the President to keep this part of the American dream alive. Let's focus on educational strategies that develop the kind of citizens we urgently need. Employability of our graduates is an important goal, but not the only one. Let's work to protect the quality of American higher education at the same time we maintain access to a college degree to those with limited financial resources. Let's do this for our nation's future.