10/30/2013 09:40 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Affordability and Accessibility in Higher Education

As students begin the process of applying for college entrance for next fall, there is continued public discussion about the cost of higher education. A recent article in the New York Times cites a study that found that despite the rise in tuition sticker prices, the amount students actually pay has remained stable over the past decade. That fact, however, is too often missed and the pressure remains to contain costs in order to ensure that a college education is affordable and accessible.

In this regard, the landscape for higher education is changing. For many years, we operated under what one commentator called the "law of more." If we wanted to do more we raised more revenue by enrolling more students and imposing large tuition increases. Those days are over. The demographics in certain areas of the country will preclude substantially larger enrollments. So too, the economy, together with public demand, will restrain colleges from imposing large tuition increases. This represents a fundamental change for most of us who for years focused on the revenue side of the budget and now need to devote much greater attention to the expense side of our budgets.

This is a story about one school's attempt to take seriously the need to keep focus on affordability and accessibility. Last year, Nazareth College established two committees, comprised of faculty and staff, to conduct assessments of our academic and administrative programs. These committees worked hard for over a year and prepared two reports. The Academic Assessment report includes a comprehensive and comparative analysis of all undergraduate and graduate degree programs, using eight criteria. The Administrative Assessment report re-envisions our administrative services, recommending ways to restructure in order to reduce expenses and, equally important, to be more efficient and effective in serving our students. Relying on these reports we developed a comprehensive plan titled "A Sustainable Financial Model: Affordability and Access" that reduces our expenses and incorporates new and creative thinking about how we can deploy our human, financial, technology, and space resources.

Even though the plan is a work in progress, we have seen real positive outcomes. Our tuition increase this past year was the lowest tuition increase in recent memory. We were able to increase our funding for financial aid. We reallocated resources to programs with growing enrollments. We consolidated all the various offices focused on student success in order to better serve the culture of success at Nazareth College. Similarly, we brought together the offices involved with  internships, service learning, experiential learning, and career services in order to coordinate our efforts to ensure that students are well prepared for their futures.

Moody's and Standard & Poors reaffirmed our credit rating and, at a time when many colleges are receiving negative outlooks, they gave us a stable outlook. In doing so, they both mentioned our fiscal plan as evidence of the College's ability to steward its resources, even with a challenging enrollment environment.  

In a related manner, our Vice President for Finance has been leading a group of area colleges who are working together on collaboration efforts. Twenty institutions have joined the Upstate New York College Collaboration, which is examining areas where schools can join together for purchasing and offering services in order to reduce expenses for each of the members.

To be sure the decisions we made were difficult and there are those who resist the changes. An interesting irony in higher education is that we want our students to change - to be transformed by their experience. And, we want them to be change agents in the world they inherit. Yet, often we inside the halls of the academy resist change in our own institutions.

Despite the resistance it is clear that as we move forward, quality and innovation will need to be achieved through redeployment of existing resources, restructuring the ways we deliver our programs and administrative services, and collaborations.