The cost of attending college has risen steadily in the last few years, barring more and more students from attending college and widening the gulf separating the rich from the rest. In an attempt to address the rising cost of tuition and its consequences, President Obama has embarked on a cross-country tour of American colleges, during which he will outline and promote a comprehensive plan to improve access and quality in higher education.
Given the staggering price-tag now attached to Duke and colleges across the country, serious attempts to reduce costs are long overdue. However, we are hopeful that Obama’s tour will not only refocus national attention on higher education, but will also situate the analysis of college costs in a conversation about access, social mobility and income inequality.
We share Obama’s concern that high costs limit Americans’ access to college and, consequently, their ability to move between social classes. In our view, the stakes are extremely high. If colleges and universities cannot rein in costs, students around the country will lose access to the wide-ranging financial, intellectual and personal benefits promised by higher education. For students of modest means, college represents the promise of a more prosperous and fulfilling life. As college becomes harder to afford, that promise will go unfulfilled and the deep social and economic divisions that stratify our country will continue to ossify.
Moreover, the failure of traditional colleges to cut costs will likely hasten the spread of online education. Although many believe that the internet will, inevitably, become the primary medium of instruction, the benefits of attending a brick-and-mortar college – a chance to engage in-person with other curious and committed students and professors – are worth defending.
However, critics of Obama’s proposal argue that universities cannot lower costs because they cannot deal with its two major causes: the rising price of labor and shrinking state budgets. Although this may be true, one way to cut costs without risking massive layoffs is to de-emphasize the college “experience,” as focusing on the trappings of collegiate life siphons money into things like campus facelifts while drawing funds away from academics.
In an attempt to address this issue, Obama has stressed the need to create better metrics for assessing colleges’ “performance.” To this end, Obama has insisted that all colleges should equip their students with the ability to find “gainful employment.” While this standard is an important baseline, it does not go far enough. We must also seek to develop ways to assess some of the broader and more long-term benefits of a college education: critical and productive participation in civil society, a commitment to the wellbeing of people worldwide and personal fulfillment. Although we recognize that this will be difficult—and we are not convinced measuring such things is even possible—it is important to remember that the value of college extends beyond its ability to place students in jobs. Helping students achieve financial stability is one of the essential tasks of college, but so is preparing students for a lifetime of personal and intellectual growth. This may be hard to measure, but it should not be left out of the equation.