08/08/2012 02:46 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2012

The Real Race to the Bottom: Affordability as the Message

College should be accessible to all, and I understand that affordability is part of the definition of access. But the universal message of affordability represents a race to the bottom that should alarm all of us.

I fully understand the delicate position I might be in by arguing about the affordability message. Each year I work with families who struggle to make college possible because of high price, limited family resources and shrinking support from the state and federal government. I experience their frustration first-hand each spring as I take their phone calls and respond to their letters requesting additional financial assistance.

I do not think a college education should be viewed as a luxury reserved only for those with significant financial resources. But the cacophony of demands for college affordability that we hear from virtually every stakeholder (particularly those in Washington D.C.), the introduction of the "bad list" of colleges priced too high, and the increased marketing emphasis on affordability send altogether the wrong message. We can't ignore other realities if we are to have an authentic discussion of college costs and access to higher education.

A Direct Conflict

Who are the affordability messengers? Federal and state governments. Accrediting agencies. Families. Students. Even the media. These stakeholders' demands for affordability, which presumes realizing less revenue either by offering more financial assistance or lowering tuition, seem to be in direct conflict with what bond raters consider when determining the relative strength of a college.

Who cares about the bond raters? We all should. Just think about the negative impact a bond downgrade has on college finances -- and ultimately on students who will bear the brunt of increasing debt service through larger tuition increases and diminished access due to tightening financial aid practices.

Financial strength and viability are more important considerations than ever before, and more public, too. It cannot be ignored that colleges are under increased pressure from two powerful stakeholders -- the affordability messengers and the bond raters -- to "do the right thing." Regrettably, the right thing for one is the opposite for the other.

I don't know who will win this one, but it will be interesting to watch. My money is on the bond raters, though. Think about the affirmation from Moody's we witnessed when Wesleyan University abandoned need-blind admission because they couldn't continue to increase aid and remain a strong institution.

At the federal level, we are witnessing what happens when the bond rating agencies are ignored as we watch our country's bond rating lowered and in jeopardy of another decline. Responding to the affordability messengers and ignoring the bond raters could result in declining access as colleges become even less affordable; or they work so hard to become "cheaper and faster" by changing structure and mission that the quality of the education is no longer as valuable as it had been historically.

Affordability and Commodification

Demands for affordability increase commodification of the college degree to an extent that should disturb everyone, even the affordability messengers. A college degree is not a sheepskin to hang on the wall after four, five or six years. Yet calls for affordability presume that education is akin to insurance, or any number of products.

Most commodities come down in price when the market is flooded. Making a commodity more affordable suggests mass production, one-size-fits-all, and cheaper-and-faster. But if faster and cheaper are the solution for education, why aren't we hearing about reducing the 12 years of primary school to 10 or nine?

Cheaper-and-faster is the enemy of the humanities in particular, and generally antipathetic to a liberally educated, civically engaged public. Yet, we continually find through surveys of corporate leaders that they prefer graduates of liberal arts colleges because of the skills they acquire through breadth and depth of studies.

Efforts to deliver a high-quality college education cheaper and faster could result in a swift drop to the bottom.

The Scorecard

It's astonishing to me to think that higher education is being reduced to a scorecard that considers matters almost exclusively related to affordability or earnings potential, as if what actually occurs on a college campus is irrelevant. The White House's College Scorecard is concerning and intensifies the obsession with affordability rather than with results, student learning outcomes and academic performance.

The administration describes this effort as providing families with comparative data on key performance indicators. But are cost, graduation rates, student load repayment, student loan debt and earnings potential the key and primary indicators of performance for a college? Do these factors alone comprise the great results of a college education?

What happened to critical and creative thinking, communication skills, broad educational knowledge and technical expertise? What about student-learning outcomes, degree completion, advancement of science, the arts, literature and social science? And, ironically, what about civic engagement? What about participation in activities that build character, promote teamwork, push a student to use multiple perspectives, study internationally or build cross-cultural understanding? What is the measure of these transformative educational experiences that benefit the individual and enhance the common good?

These important skills for life and work often are dismissed as frivolous and as driving the cost of education higher and higher. Yet these skills prepare college graduates to accumulate value throughout their professional lives, rather that simply get a job.

Reducing a college education to matters of money sure seems like sinking to the bottom.

A Richer Dialogue

Colleges are working hard to maintain their affordability as is evidenced in the College Board's Report on College Cost. The report documents a modest net price increase to students over the course of the past few years. Yet colleges remain the primary target and the calls for reform are as loud as they've been.

Colleges often are described as inefficient and investing in all of the wrong things (eg. the climbing wall, the opulent residence hall, etc.). However, the astonishing growth in institutional financial aid offered to students too often goes without notice. Bond raters have noticed, board members have noticed and the good people at NACUBO certainly have documented it.

While some suggest the growth in aid is because of rising prices, much of the financial aid fills the "doughnut hole" left in the wake of declining state and federal aid. In far more cases than are acknowledged, colleges are filling that hole. At my own institution, Augustana College in Illinois, the rate of growth in financial assistance outpaces other areas of spending, and we all know this growth rate is unsustainable.

Some will view this missive as a head-in-the-sand approach to a moral crisis, but I am not naïve enough to think we can continue with business as usual. I do not defend decades of increasing price at twice the rate of inflation.

I simply want to help redirect the dialogue to an honest conversation about what we do in higher education, how we do it, why we do it, how it benefits our stakeholders and whether or not all of our goals can be accomplished in a more affordable way. Affordability alone is a superficial platform for a discussion of this magnitude.