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Let's Refocus the Debate About Higher Education Affordability

10/07/2013 01:33 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

College affordability has become the central theme of commentators about higher education recently, reaching a climax in President Obama's plan to reform higher education. There is no doubt that college costs have skyrocketed and that something must be done, but the rhetoric is obscuring some important facts.

The underlying assumption of most articles published in the popular press (and, indeed, of President Obama's speech) is that the colleges themselves are to blame. I have even heard TV pundits accuse colleges of "gouging" students. This accusation is disingenuous and only serves to deflect attention from some very real problems.

Having served in higher education for over three decades, I can attest that colleges typically work tirelessly to reduce costs. In fact, college administrations often run into problems with their own faculty and staff because they are trying so hard to contain costs. Far from gouging students, most colleges work assiduously to make tuition affordable. So, simply asserting that the problem is college greed and that the solution is to demand more from colleges is far from useful.

The pundits rarely acknowledge the real reasons that college costs are so high because the colleges themselves are a convenient scapegoat.

The modern college is nothing like it was three or four decades ago, so comparing tuition costs then with those of today is misleading. When I attended college, a roommate and I lived in a "dormitory" in a small cement-block cell that could barely contain a pair of beds and desks. The shared showers and restrooms were down the hall. Today, students have much more humane living conditions: "residence halls," where they have access to private restrooms, lounges, kitchen facilities, and recreational areas.

When I attended school, we ate in a cafeteria, where we were afforded the choice of two or three food options for each meal. We might, for example, be able to choose between squares of pizza, or what we all called "mystery meat" (a dish containing some indistinguishable meat), and a Cool-Aid style beverage we called "bug juice," because it was so sweet it would attract flies. Today, colleges are sensitive to students' dietary restrictions, food allergies, health concerns, and even faith-based food choices. "Healthful choices" have replaced mystery meat.

In my day, if we had trouble mastering math or writing, we were out of luck. We had to sink or swim (or hire a tutor, if our family could afford it). Today, colleges sponsor math labs, writing centers, learning centers, study coaches, and other student services--all in an effort to provide students the maximum opportunity to succeed.

Back then, we frequented what was known as a "library," where we would study among "the stacks," labyrinths of dense shelves of musty books. Today, students might meet at the college's "research information commons," a place where students can study in groups and access the college's online holdings of books, journals, and newspapers. The former promoted solitary musing (not to mention allergies); the later promotes group collaboration and innovation.

When I went to college, we had no access to trained counselors if we developed emotional or psychological problems. We had to figure our troubles out for ourselves (or consult a professional therapist, if our family could afford it). Today, most colleges employ full-time professionals who can help students in crisis--an especially important service given the increased incidents of mass violence that have been erupting on college campuses.

In other words, colleges have evolved into much more sophisticated "learning environments" than simple "schools," collections of classrooms and laboratories. But while this modern "environment" has been created to give every student an opportunity to succeed, it costs dearly. Think about it--isn't it worth it? Would you opt for the days of bug juice and mystery meat over sensitivity to students' health?

The real problem--the elephant in the room--is that as a society we have lost sight of the value of higher education. In the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, we as a society knew that our collective future was integrally linked to our ability to offer a quality college education to as many citizens as possible.

Today, state support of public universities has plummeted. At one time, many state universities could expect to receive seventy percent or more of their funding from the state. Today, it is as low as twenty or thirty percent (or less in a few states)--this while countries like Thailand and China are pouring funding into their own higher education systems.

We all want college to be affordable, but let's refocus the debate away from a facile blame scenario onto the real issues: if you want a quality education, it costs a great deal of money; and if we as a society truly value higher education, then we will need to prove it.