In case you missed the breaking news, college tuition is expensive. Prohibitively, exorbitantly expensive.
College presidents are on a tear: writing op-eds either justifying or decrying the value of a college degree. Politicians are endlessly stumping: floundering to address student loan rates or hyping alternatives to higher education. And students are left in a vice-like bind: mortgaging their future on a never-ending sea of payments or ceasing their studies altogether in favor of an infinitely more affordable path forward.
But where oh where is the voice of the faculty?
College professors are in a untenable position when it comes to addressing these ever-rising costs. Faculty, while doubtlessly aware of the sky-rocketing costs, have absolutely no concept of where their voice fits into the mix. They teach, they research, they write a grant, they advise, they express murmurs of disapproval at the faculty meeting where costs are discussed. And nothing changes. Except for tuition. Which keeps going up.
Unsurprisingly, the national voice of the faculty have been limited to a defensive posture in the face of fingers pointing at the faculty for serving as a root cause of raising rates. Or, there are clarion calls for faculty to challenge the status quo which most faculty feel powerless to answer.
Although professors sport a negligible ability to directly lower a tuition bill, I would argue that there are other things that faculty can do to address the cost of higher education, practices that can directly affect the experiences and outcomes of our struggling students.
Require Certificate/Training Programs as Part of Your Curriculum
So many colleges now offer certificate or other training programs as part of the institution's offerings, whether they be in non-profit management, fundraising, organizational development or myriad other skills that expand the students base of knowledge. If your institution can sponsor students through these programs, the students will emerge post-commencement with an extra credential that will set them apart from their peers. This then gives them far more bang for their buck, a tangible value-added to the base tuition and fees.
Add Community Engagement Components to Your Course
The more students leave campus, the more they are able to gain both life-altering perspective as well as career-altering contacts. Every course taught on a college campus can add an element requiring students to leave campus and to increase their exposure to the world in which we will soon be sending them. The Campus Compact website actually features syllabi from every discipline with these elements. This is another value-added feature any faculty member can embrace that will set up our students well to be both retained and employed.
Insert Social Justice Everywhere
Faculty cannot be blind to the issues of race and class that are inherently present in the astronomical cost of higher education. It is not enough to foster these conversations in special Town Hall meetings; they must also take place in the classroom. Again, every course taught on a college campus can add an element requiring student engagement on the topics of race and class, from the topic of economic access in the natural sciences to the presence of artists of color in art history survey courses. Faculty must do more to increase students' ability to have difficult conversations about race and class if we ever hope to graduate a population of citizens who can fully flesh out how rising tuition costs affect all segments of our population.
Counsel Some Students Out of the College
Ah, the taboo subject. We are told to do every single thing we can do to retain every possible student who can be retained. Sometimes this is just plain unethical. I will never forgive myself for not doing more to help counsel out one young woman who so obviously was accruing debt that she couldn't possibly repay. When the loans dried up and there were no more grants to be found, she was forced to leave the institution one semester short of graduation, over a hundred thousand dollars short of being in the red and one diploma short of a diploma. Faculty need to be able to break out of the retention mold to advise some students that the route of higher education might not be in their best interest. To do any less (which includes avoiding these conversations altogether) does students a great disservice and only perpetuates the problem.
I am not so foolish as to imply that anything above will actually translate into an increase in a student's ability to pay for college. But neither can faculty change the culture without a voice in the dialogue. We teach. That's what we do so well. So let's incorporate this context more into our teaching and see what might change.