President Obama has just announced a set of proposals aimed at encouraging lower college costs and holding colleges accountable for student outcomes, both laudable goals.
The proposals themselves largely ignore the great diversity of colleges and universities in the U.S., the value of education that encourages creativity and critical thinking, and the need for a wide variety of skills in our nation.
I spent 32 years at large research intensive public universities, and now am in my second college presidency at a Masters Comprehensive private university, The Sage Colleges in upstate New York. At Sage, we have already implemented the cost cutting suggested by the president, and have not raised our tuition for 5 years. Over 90 percent of our students receive financial aid, and their actual costs are less than half of our sticker price. In fact, most small private colleges and universities subsidize education with need based financial aid. At Sage, we combine a solid liberal arts education with preparation for many professions, and the rate at which our graduates are employed or go on to graduate school is 98 percent. Our student population is ethnically diverse (32 percent of undergraduates), and many students come from families with modest means.
So why am I concerned about the president's proposal?
My deepest concern is the intention to rate colleges and universities in part on the earnings of graduates. The message this sends to our youth, and to our educators, is "Forget the professions which serve critical societal needs, but which won't make you rich." "Forget grade school and high school teaching, the Peace Corps, Americorps, social work, public health, legal aid and the myriad of other professions which help make our society strong. In fact, forget college and university teaching except at the rich, elite schools. You won't make enough money to help Department of Education ratings."
I don't think this is what the president intended with this aspect of the proposal, but if rankings are tied to funding, the effect will be to discourage professions that help low income and middle class families with education, health and other critical services. College is both "for the making of a living and the living of a life" as an engaged citizen.
My second concern is with the issue of how to measure student progress. Many students at Sage and other similar colleges do finish in four years, but others transfer to other colleges, take time off to work, volunteer or care for ill family members, or change their major and need extra time. Other students are raising families or have special needs and need more time to complete degrees. In addition, the current Department of Education ratings of progress to graduation do not capture transfer students. By these measures, President Obama would not have been included in the graduation numbers for either Occidental College or Columbia University, the schools he attended as an undergraduate.
There is no question that colleges and universities need to continue to provide relevant, effective education that leads to service and employment. There is no question that we must do everything in our power to make college education affordable, even as it is still the single best investment in the future that a person can make. In fact, in July 2013, the unemployment rate was 7.6 percent for high school graduates who never went to college and just 3.8 percent for college grads. Median weekly earnings for those with a bachelor's degree totaled $1,066 in 2012, compared with $652 for those with only a high school diploma , and, college graduates earn more over their lifetimes -- 84 percent more -- than people without degrees.
As educators, we have a responsibility to step up. In order to succeed, we need partnerships with state and federal leaders which support our mutual goals. Proposing regulations to require outcomes which do not fit all students, provide disincentives to professions which serve us all, and threaten to reduce the creativity which has made us great as a nation, is not the way to go.
We all need to exercise some common sense in strongly encouraging college affordability and high quality, relevant education while retaining the wide range of choices in an educational system which has been the best in the world.