Making a College Education Worth The Staggering Expense
In February, the new Secretary of Education caused quite a stir with his comments about student-aid programs and the quality of higher education. But William J. Bennett's "divestiture" remarks, exaggerated and distasteful as they were, should not distract us from debate on a subject that cries out for public discussion: the staggering expense of higher education, and whether the product is worth the cost. Mr. Bennett has raised a serious issue in blunt fashion. Rather than venting our characteristic indignation in response, we in education need to realize that many people are beginning to ask this question.
There has not been comparable public attention focused on the nation's colleges since the post-Sputnik furor in the 1950's. But this time it is not scientific research and graduate programs that dominate the headlines. Instead, it is the quality and cost of a basic undergraduate education.
Two years ago, A Nation At Risk kicked off a period of intense official scrutiny of U.S. high schools. This year, it is the colleges' turn. Already, there have been major reports on undergraduate education from the Education Department, Mr. Bennett, and the Association of American Colleges. A book on the condition of the undergraduate college by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching will come out next year. So far, these panels and commissions have decried colleges' lack of curricular rigor, falling standards, neglect of the humanities, and failure to impart even the basic skills of speaking, writing, and critical reading.
While these declines were occurring, costs went up and up. A college education at the elite private institutions now runs about $60,000. Parents of 8th and 9th graders can figure on spending $100,000. That represents an investment the size of a house. The public alternative is cheaper, but also soaring. Over the last three years, tuition at the nation's public colleges and universities has risen at three-and-one-half times the rate of inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index.
In the 1970's, state legislatures imposed accountability on their universities; since then, they have been asked to count students, faculty, administrators, classrooms, degrees, and every other quantifiable item, and their budgets have been driven by strict formulas—often with state funding linked directly (and only) to the number of students an institution has. The focus in state legislatures has been on keeping costs down. As a result, the overall percentage of college costs paid for by state appropriations has dropped steadily and the overall percentage from tuition has gone up. Thus, the burden of paying for an education shifted more and more from the state to students and parents.
Understandably, the people shouldering this burden demand a different kind of accountability than legislators do. Consumers are interested in quality, not quantity. If we are to charge more, we must deliver a better product. It is incumbent upon the universities to develop programs aimed at improving undergraduate education.
One necessary step is to make higher education truly higher by raising entrance standards. The University of Colorado, working in cooperation with the state's high schools, recently addressed this need. By the fall term of 1988, high-school graduates, in order to qualify for admission to C.U., must have taken four years of English (with emphasis on composition), three years of college-preparatory mathematics, three years of natural science, two years of social sciences, and two years of one foreign language. Many other states are making similar changes.
Note the emphasis on basic skills. Without them, students are unprepared for college-level work and universities must spend a portion of their valuable resources on remedial courses. The changes also reflect our shared commitment with high schools never to return to the era when colleges and high schools blamed each other for poor performance by students. Those days are mercifully over. Now the burden of guilt is shared, and so is the responsibility for improvement. Despite some problems that are inevitable in trying to set uniformly high standards for a broad constituency, cooperation between high schools and C.U. has been remarkable. Most high-school leaders have in fact welcomed our initiative.
Another step is to take a hard look at the treatment of freshmen and sophomores. Many large universities give them an I.D number, stuff them into big lecture classes (many of them taught by teaching assistants), administer multiple-choice exams, and grade them by computer. Opportunities to speak in class, defend ideas, compose written arguments—that is, to think—are almost nonexistent. Meeting one's professor is a rare and usually uncomfortable experience.
Some universities are beginning to develop programs to combat this situation. At C.U., two residential colleges on the Boulder campus allow freshmen to take several small classes in their dormitory with senior faculty members. The courses emphasize critical reading, writing, and serious discussion with other students. Professors not only go to the dormitories to teach the classes, but they often stay for lunch or dinner with their students, thus creating a small-college environment within a large university.
The Boulder campus has also created an array of special classes that will be offered for the first time to the entering class next fall. They range from a "mentor" program for all engineering freshmen to an elective four-course sequence entitled "Critical Inquiry Into the Arts." All of these new courses emphasize interaction between faculty and students, group discussions, and the development of reading, writing, and thinking.
These programs are expensive. For some programs—the residential colleges, for example—we add a surcharge to tuition. The fact that these programs are overfilled shows how students and their parents feel about their value. For other programs, C.U. pays the full cost using so-called "enrichment" funds, which have been generated through internal reallocation.
These are just a few specific examples illustrating my belief that Mr. Bennett's remarks call for constructive responses from people in higher education, not hand-wringing and hostility. All of us need to be involved in formulating public policy on an issue as important as this. Educators, parents, students, and legislators should work together to help public and private institutions in all states offer quality education at a reasonable cost.
Vol. 04, Issue 35, Page 24