When I reflect on what I think needs to change in higher education, I cannot help but worry about the rising price of tuition and its threat to the sustainability of colleges and universities.
As reported in The Chronicle, many flagship institutions of higher education in the US were able to only increase tuition between less than 1% up to 5% for the years between 2016-2017 and 2017-2018. Conversely, however, when compared with the “10-year change” in tuition rates, even these colleges and universities that were able to minimize tuition raises recently, have experienced much higher raises, often to the tune of 10-11% over the past decade.
I was fortunate enough to attend a small, private four-year liberal arts college. Like many students who attend institutions of this type, I did not pay anywhere near the “sticker price” for my education. As Emma Pettit reported for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Nearly a fifth of private colleges have discounted their first-tuition by at least 60 percent.” Pettit continues that “Scholars who are skeptical of tuition discounting worry that, if left unchecked, the practice will risk the financial health of an institution.” Tuition discounting also carries with it alarming social costs as well, as many skeptics of this practice suggest that it can “undermine a college’s efforts to enroll low-income and minority students . . . because such students are often scared off by the full advertised tuition.” Sans massive endowments to fund tuition scholarships, and without careful recruitment of a diverse student body, I, too am skeptical that tuition discounting is a reasonable counterpoint to the consistent annual increase of tuition most colleges and universities implement each academic year.
Some colleges and universities have recently moved toward a Tuition-Free Policy. For example, in August 2018 New York University’s School of Medicine announced it “would provide full-tuition scholarships to all current and future students” in response to the rising tide of student debt facing many medical students and new physicians. Similarly, earlier this month in November 2018, Arizona State University announced its collaboration with ride-sharing app Uber “to provide fully-funded tuition in its online program to drivers in eight cities” adding to “a growing number of tuition-free alliances between universities and corporations.”
While the recent impulse to go “tuition free” is in some respects exciting, I am still skeptical that it will be sustainable over years or decades by institutions. Even in cases where free or discounted education is sponsored by profitable corporations, I worry that rising this process may co-opt access and ideology within higher education. In order to achieve sustainability for higher education, I believe that institutions need to raise stronger endowments through their own almuni organizations, foundations, as well as state and federal grant sources.