President Barack Obama has now joined the chorus of critics who assert that higher education in this country is too expensive, graduates are leaving college with unreasonable debt, and colleges should be graded on measures and scales developed by the federal government.
They couldn't be more wrong.
Affordability, quality and accountability are important issues that all institutions of higher education have been addressing for years and welcome the opportunity to further discuss them with the president. Much has been made of the many students who are enrolled in college today who will likely leave with a manageable average debt of about $27,000, about the cost of a new car. Given that their four-year degrees, on average, will reap a lifetime earnings boost of about $1 million, that is a pretty good return on investment.
President Obama wants the federal government to provide rankings of all institutions and provide funding for those that meet his prescribed metrics, thus encouraging a sameness in higher education. Our nation has the greatest higher education system in the world. We have an unmatched array of educational opportunities, from a pure liberal arts degree earned at a St. John's to a narrowly focused business degree from a Wharton to a deeply technical course of study at a Caltech. The kind of intrusion President Obama suggests would be a great threat to our diverse American higher education.
Colleges and universities recognize they are academic enterprises that would not survive if they a) were not meeting the needs of the public and b) did not apply the simple economics of supply, demand and pricing to balance the two. And I know I speak for every college president in the U.S. in saying that we work hard every day to keep costs to students and their families down through efficiencies and good business practices. The truth is that higher education institutions, from community colleges to independent colleges to the land grant universities in all 50 states, work hard at developing and putting into place generous programs, including scholarships, grants and work-study programs, to make obtaining a college education affordable.
Those of us in higher education believe the value of a college education outweighs the costs — by a large margin — and we do not need the federal government deciding how to measure or define the value of an education and provide funding to institutions based on government rankings. President Obama has proposed that one measure of quality of a college or university is to assess the success of its graduates. On the surface that makes sense, but the devil is in the details. Would the measure of success be by salary levels? The type of job or career? Happiness?
Consider this: Under President Obama's proposal, students who are most at risk for succeeding in college will be the ones most affected. Colleges will be less likely to give even the most industrious students from the poorest-performing high schools a chance to create better lives for themselves through a college degree because these students traditionally pose the greatest retention risk. Under President Obama's plan, a higher dropout rate translates into a lower graduation rate, which then translates into less federal financial assistance. Given these parameters, why then would any college take a chance on these students? Instead, they would be destined to perpetuate their current economic status, and the circumstances of their births alone would determine their potential career trajectory.
There are many measures of the quality of a college or university, and there is a long list of publications and organizations that have had varying levels of success at doing that. The government should not be in the college rankings business.
I would welcome President Obama to visit Hood College — or any small, independent college for that matter — to see firsthand how our dedicated faculty and staff manage our institutions with great efficiencies and deliver affordable, high-quality education. I look forward to meeting with the president.
Ronald J. Volpe has been president of Hood College in Frederick since 2001. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.