08/13/2013 11:59 am ET Updated Oct 13, 2013

Addressing Affordability and the Need for Multiple Approaches in Higher Education: An Appeal to the President

In his speech last month, President Obama noted that a "cornerstone of a strong middle class... [is] an education that prepares our children and our workers for the global competition that they're going to face. And if you think education is expensive, wait until you see how much ignorance costs in the 21st century."

I couldn't agree more.

In fact, there are several issues that the president raised in his speech that demand the attention of those of us who work in higher education.

First, the issue of debt. Colleges and universities have a responsibility to provide transparent financial counseling to our students and their families as they make decisions about what they can (and want to) afford. We need to help students understand what their monthly college loan payments will be following graduation, and we need to provide clear employment outcomes information about our graduates. According to The Project on Student Debt, an initiative of the Institute for College Access & Success, the average student debt at the time of graduation from college is currently $26,600. Depending on interest rates, this translates to roughly $300 per month, a cost comparable to what many people would consider to be a reasonable car payment. However, there are some individual cases where students clearly have borrowed too much, compromising their ability to get ahead -- or even make ends meet -- following their graduation. Colleges and universities should not balance their budgets on the backs of students who will never be able to recover from crippling debt. We must help our students to understand the difference between wise and uninformed borrowing.

That being said, we also need our administration to be forthright about college costs. In his remarks, President Obama chastised American higher education as "an undisciplined system where costs just keep on going up and up and up... costs that are going up 5, 6, 7 percent a year." That statement is truly perplexing, and I can only infer that the president's advisers are not giving him the facts. According to the College Board's 2012 study, Trends in College Pricing, the average tuition and fee rate has increased at an average of 2.44 percent at private, nonprofit four-year colleges in recent years; in fact, when one accounts for financial aid and scholarships, the average inflation-adjusted net tuition at private colleges has actually dropped by 3.5 percent over the past five years. And while it may be true that many public universities are increasing tuition at an aggressive pace (the same study lists an average tuition and fees increase of 4.96 percent at public four-year colleges during the same time period), they are doing so in order to fill gaps created by reduced state support. I know of no college or university president who isn't focused on cost and affordability. To suggest otherwise is unwarranted, and I would hope President Obama would look carefully at the work that's being done on many of our campuses to contain costs, before describing us as undisciplined and irresponsible.

Second, President Obama uses the phrase "a good education." What constitutes a good education? In his remarks, the president focuses on job training, a phrase that connotes learning a very specific set of skills for a specific job. Obviously, there are many jobs that require very specific training -- an X-ray technician, a commercial pilot, an electrician, and so on. But as he talks about our younger generations of students, he fails to mention the fact that many of today's college graduates will change jobs and careers multiple times throughout their lives. In fact, some will find themselves in jobs that don't yet exist. In contrast to a highly specialized education in a trade, a liberal arts education teaches critical thinking, problem-solving, effective communication, and global understanding. These are skills that transfer from job to job and provide excellent preparation for the career trajectories that today's youth will experience. I certainly hope President Obama perceives a liberal arts education to be a valuable approach to "job training."

In fact, our country is home to a variety of students who benefit from a variety of educational options; some of our students are 18-year-olds who would like to attend a residential college, some are high school seniors interested in vocational training, some are adults looking for retraining, and some are single parents who need access to courses on their own time. It is essential that we offer a range of opportunities to meet the varied educational needs in this country. We must recognize that a one-size-fits-all approach to education is unwise; we must think innovatively and try new initiatives that both enhance education and increase its accessibility to all students. Rather than arguing over which model is best, we must remember that there is value in variety.

Finally, there is one area that the president misses altogether. Although he discusses the importance of education for individual advancement and for economic reasons, he does not mention the critical importance of an educated citizenry for the survival of a strong democracy: a citizenry that can carry on civil debate, a citizenry that can work towards the solution of complex domestic and international problems -- in short, a citizenry that has the skills and the inclination to try to make this world a better place.

This model of education -- one that aims to create an educated citizenry -- happens to be the mission of many of our colleges. And while the cost of that kind of education may be high, it's hard to imagine that President Obama -- a college graduate who took out loans to fund his own education -- doesn't see its value. It is the responsibility of those of us in higher education to make that value apparent and to make available the opportunity of education to students from all economic backgrounds. And it is the responsibility of our leaders, and our president, to support us in this process. The future of our nation depends on it.