The cost and the value of higher education, the short- and long-term impact of student debt, the role of career preparation and accountability for student outcomes are the subject of intense and increasing examination and debate.
Every higher education professional I know is acutely aware of shifting demographic and business models in our industry, and the need to explicitly provide, and show, value for students and their families. We recognize the need to respond to increasing consumer scrutiny, government regulation, and the legitimate evolving needs of employers and the labor force. We understand the pressure to compete and to be responsive to the need to reduce costs and increase value. Whether at a small independent school like Montserrat College of Art or a major university, this is our work. But, it is also our fundamental work to maintain the integrity, excellence and relevance of the education we provide — to educate and prepare students to enter society as thoughtful and contributing citizens, to impassion curiosity and to challenge them to seek truth.
In their 2005 book “Remaking the American University: Market-Smart and Mission-Centered,” Robert Zemsky, Gregory Wenger and William Massy outlined the road American higher education has traveled to become less a “public good” and more a “private gain.” They clearly articulated our collective imperative to maintain the centrality of mission to educate, not just train, even in the face of our need to respond to the markets in which we operate. Almost eight years later, the perspectives articulated in their book could not be more pertinent or their prescriptions for change more acute. We leaders and stewards of higher education must carefully calibrate how we respond to the external pressure of the marketplace while still maintaining our responsibility to hold fast and advocate for the central core of values that have made American higher education the envy of the world.
As challenging as these times may be, it is still our imperative to maintain access, be cost effective, be contemporary in providing an excellent and relevant education, and at the same time, intentionally prepare students for life and for the world of work. We must do this while holding true to the important values and larger social purposes that guide our institutions, aggressively protecting the quality of what is taught.
While delivery models continue to evolve, we must maintain curricula and pedagogy that ensure the habits of mind, analytical problem-solving, writing, speaking and visual communication skills, and appropriate professional preparation necessary for our students to successfully navigate an increasingly complex and rapidly changing marketplace. We must accomplish all this in an evolving environment in which the development of new educational tools challenges us to impart this learning differently, in some cases to far-flung constituencies.
We can rail about inconsistent and over-politicized calls for increased accountability, the increasing costs of regulation and diminished public funding, but these realities are not going to change. There is little doubt that we will be subject to a rating system developed by the U.S. Department of Education. Few of us will be happy with the accuracy or the quality of the data employed in those assessments or in the relative lack of appreciation for the extensive innovation already underway in our industry.
With federal support for student aid now in excess of $150 billion per year, with overwhelming demand at both state and federal levels for too few resources, with seemingly permanent dysfunction in Congress, and with aging populations and business communities not supportive of increases in taxes, the pressure on education to provide value will likely only grow.
Following are a few ways that could mitigate some of the challenges:
In the college search process, students and their families should be encouraged to focus more on the range of learning opportunities offered at prospective colleges and less on the increasingly expensive amenities that drive up the cost of education for everyone.
Our government leadership can focus on new ways to encourage student K-12 readiness for higher education, rather than expecting higher education to remediate the failed outcomes of current programs.
Investment should be encouraged in experiments and pilot projects across the higher education landscape to reduce cost, increase persistence and measure relevant outcomes rather than squandering energy defining and imposing centrally developed regulation.
We should be advocating for STEAM not just STEM education. STEM-related coursework is important, but creativity is core to innovation and entrepreneurship — and hence a major driver of economic and cultural growth. Maintaining investment in arts and humanities education is critical for both the quality of the human experience and a robust economy. The diverse professional paths and achievements of Montserrat alumni and their successful careers inside and outside the creative economy validate the importance of maintaining arts and arts funding. See Letting Off STEAM at Montserrat College of Art.
More students and their families should be encouraged and educated about how to take advantage of loan-forgiveness and pay-as-you-go debt-management programs. These are important and useful programs directly designed to help reduce the increasing student debt burden.
And Congress can end the practice of collecting exorbitant interest profits from direct student loans (this year alone in excess of $37 billion) — a tax on those students least able to pay.
The means and methods of providing a quality education — and the business model that enables them — will evolve. The perception of price and value will also evolve, but the underlying core values and integrity of what is to be learned must be preserved. With persistence, learning and sharing best practices with our colleagues, and some reasoned encouragement from those to whom we are accountable, we will all be able to be both market-smart and mission-centered.
Stephen D. Immerman is president of Montserrat College of Art. This column first appeared in The New England Journal of Higher Education.