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College Affordability and the American Dream

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The American dream is still a powerful concept and very much alive. I can think of no better way to achieve the American dream -- of personal fulfillment, professional success, and a better life for self and family -- than attending college. Making sure that college remains affordable to all Americans goes to our very character as a culture and a people.

I can speak of this from personal experience. Even though I now proudly serve as president of the University of Iowa, one of our nation's great public universities, I was the first to experience higher education in my family. Although my mother barely finished high school before she entered the workforce and my father, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, only finished the eighth grade, they wanted their children to pursue the American dream.

Fortunately, I was able to earn three degrees at very fine public universities. Because I had access to an affordable college education, I have lived the American dream.

President Barack Obama came to the University of Iowa campus a few days ago and gave a speech about the need to keep college affordable. That's how important this issue is to America's future, and I'm proud that we've made affordable, accessible education a top priority at Iowa.

Iowa has earned a reputation for value. Our resident undergraduate tuition and fees remain the second-lowest in the Big Ten, and non-residents also enjoy relatively low out-of-state tuition. For seven straight years, the Fiske Guide to Colleges has listed the university among its "best buys" -- colleges that offer high academic rankings and vibrant student life at an inexpensive or moderate price. In 2011, only 49 schools made the grade.

To help keep costs to students low, the university has emphasized efficiency and productivity through innovation. Even as state appropriations have declined more quickly than ever during the recent economic downturn, we have made maintaining strong yet affordable education programs the university's number one goal. Our university community has met every budget challenge with creative thinking in order to preserve our core missions. We have done so by reorganizing, preserving value, and avoiding unnecessary expense growth. These are the strategies that institutions across the country must embrace in the new higher education environment.

Here are a few examples of cost-saving measures from all corners of the university. We have significantly downsized our workforce, achieved in large part through an enhanced early retirement program. This not only saves the institution millions of dollars, but it gives our people a dignified and deserved early opportunity to pursue their interests in the next phase of their lives if they desire.

Our colleges, including the Graduate College, have eliminated or restructured programs based on student demand and opportunities to streamline for a more efficient, effective student experience. As we prepare students for lives of professional success and service to society, we want to be sure that our education aligns with the constantly changing and newly emerging needs of today's world. Keeping our majors, minors, certificate programs, and general education program on the cutting edge of knowledge and responsive to the swift developments in today's society often allows us to budget more efficiently at the same time we contribute better prepared graduates to the workforce and our communities.

In addition to cost-saving measures, the university has directed more resources toward student financial aid, guided by the belief that no qualified student should be denied a high-quality education based on his or her ability to pay. In the past five years, even as our budgets have been challenged by the weak economy, we have raised financial aid to UI students at all levels -- undergraduate, graduate, and professional.

The University of Iowa also has created a series of self-supporting "enterprise" units that provide economical campus service and has implemented many administrative, organizational, and technological efficiencies in such areas as libraries, admissions, business systems, student records, and information technology. All have been accomplished with better yet more efficient service in mind.

As a result, as we make our infrastructure more efficient, more resources can be directed to our core missions -- learning, discovery, and engagement for the betterment of all.

We are proud that Iowa state law guarantees all qualified Iowa resident students are admitted to its state universities. We've also made a concerted effort to make sure all Iowans who qualify for admission can afford to study here.

As our country faces the economic, social, cultural, and global challenges of the 21st century, the way to keep the American dream within our grasp is to provide more, not less, access to higher education. At Iowa, we're doing just that.