3 ways college presidents can lead the higher ed affordability conversation

Daily Briefing

3 ways college presidents can lead the higher ed affordability conversation

Last updated in February 2021

Between President Biden’s campaign promise to forgive student loan debt and the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, college affordability continues to make headlines. And for good reason: 60% of adults have considered returning to college, but worry about cost. Another 22% of prospective students (and 36% of their parents) rank the cost of attendance as their top worry when it comes to college admissions.

The topic of affordability seems to fall on vice presidents of enrollment management, admissions counselors, and financial aid officers, who interact with students and their families when they’re actively working through their financial decisions, as well as lawmakers who allocate state funding. But college presidents also have a vital role in the higher ed affordability conversation.

What is it? In short, college presidents’ role is to educate.

“It is easy to criticize that which you do not understand, and there are few easier targets than administrative spending in higher education,” wrote the University of Minnesota President Emeritus Eric Kaler in an op-ed for the StarTribune. So to dispel myths about higher ed spending and funding, here are a few recommendations for—and from—college presidents in leading conversations about affordability:

1. Educate the public about the realities of higher ed spending and funding


of Americans are aware that state funding for higher education has declined
of Americans are aware that state funding for higher education has declined

Kaler notes that when it comes to higher ed affordability and spending, the public is unaware that cost per student (based on the combination of state aid and tuition) hasn’t, in fact, “skyrocketed beyond the rate of inflation.” Instead, “what has changed is who pays,” explains Kaler in an interview with Education Dive. “Because of pretty dramatic disinvestment in state support of public higher education, the cost shift to students and their families has been dramatic.”

And a couple of recent reports back up Kaler’s claim. For instance, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that states spend $9 billion less (adjusted for inflation) on higher education than they did 10 years ago. But according to a recent survey by American Public Media, only 29% of Americans are aware that funding has declined.

So it’s vital that higher ed leaders ensure that students and their families understand why college costs what it does, says Kaler. “That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t continue to be very aggressive in controlling our costs, which we are. It doesn’t say we shouldn’t grow financial aid for people who need it, because we are. But to castigate institutions when there’s been dramatic disinvestment by the state that used to be our co-equal or better is something you can’t ignore,” he adds.

2. Educate leadership teams on campus

In addition to educating the public, college presidents must also educate their own teams to set strategy. “[T]here’s enormous pressure on presidents, provosts, and other leaders to explain what the market trends mean for their teams and their colleges,” suggests EAB Managing Director David Attis, who spent the beginning of 2019 meeting with 300+ campus leadership teams.

For instance, many leadership teams struggle to create a common understanding on campus “because they don’t understand how demographic shifts or state funding or affordability issues will affect them,” explains Attis. “[A] lot of presidents and provosts feel like they understand what’s happening, they have a real sense of the rapidity of change and the need to respond to it,” he adds. “But they don’t feel like everyone else on campus understands how quickly things are changing.”

“You can’t set strategy if no one knows what you’re setting strategy against,” explains Attis.

3. Educate the public about the value of higher ed

Beyond explaining the realities of higher ed spending and funding, college presidents must also educate the public about the value of higher education, argues Kaler. In fact, Kaler suggests that the biggest challenge facing college presidents today is the “public perception of higher ed as too costly, and the concomitant view that it’s therefore not worth it.”

And this perception runs in tandem with the growing skepticism surrounding the value of a college degree. For instance, just 49% of Americans believe that a college education is worth the cost because it leads to greater financial earnings, according to a 2017 survey conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News. And this figure is even lower among 18-34 year olds (39%), working class Americans (35%), and Americans living in rural areas (34%).

“Higher ed needs to work really hard to… talk about the value of an educated population”

Eric Kaler, President Emeritus of the University of Minnesota

But despite the skepticism about “return on education,” a Pew Research Center analysis has found that “college-educated millennials [are] outperforming their less-educated peers on virtually every economic measure.” In 2012, median earnings for bachelor’s degree holders were $17,500 higher than those of high school graduates.

“Higher ed needs to work really hard to… talk about the value of an educated population,” suggests Kaler.

Sources: Attis, EAB, 2/26/19; Busta, Education Dive, 5/21/19

Read on to enroll students—despite growing college cost concerns

This interactive infographic dives into explanations of the market factors increasing families’ price sensitivity, discussion of related implications for enrollment outcomes, data from national surveys regarding considerations that most powerfully influence students’ choice of school, examples of the nine steps in action, and guidance on their implementation.

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