johnson: New realities and old ideasWritten by Dan Johnson | | firstname.lastname@example.org
One of the great privileges of working in education is the opportunity to encounter a fresh class of new students each fall. They arrive on our campuses excited, nervous, some frightened but nearly all full of optimism, new ideas and a positive outlook on the world.
I remember my first days as a college freshman and I can assure you, I was one of the nervous and frightened ones. But being a college freshman is like opening a new diary where each day offers fresh experiences, new ideas and glimpses of hope for the future. The success of these new students may well be one of the most important goals we as a nation, state and community should pursue.
There is, however, a new reality that is adversely affecting the success rates of college students. It is a harsh reality that now has the attention of our public officials, university administrators and families and students themselves. That reality is the high cost of higher education and, especially for middle-class students, the increasing cost of public higher education.
For many, the only solution is student loans. As a state, we’ve done almost nothing to solve this problem; an ever-greater portion of the growing cost of public higher education is being shifted to the students. The sad result is students frequently have to borrow beyond their means to repay just to stay in school and graduate. An increasing number of young people are deciding that higher education is just beyond their means. Sadly, this frequently comes in the second or third year of college, forcing the student to drop out with loans in the tens of thousands of dollars and no degree. All this is coming at a time in our history when, more than ever, we need well-educated citizens and workers to compete in a world where education and innovation are the major drivers of our economies.
What can we do here in Ohio to help solve this looming problem for our state and its young citizens? I believe there are at least two steps we can take:
First, we need to agree that this is a problem we want to solve. It must become a priority at all levels. We can do that with the right kind of leaders and leadership.
Second, we need to identify possible solutions for public discussion and develop public opinion around these solutions. We can do that, again, with the right kind of leaders and leadership.
Allow me to offer a few ideas to help start a conversation. There are, I believe, at least three possibilities that should be considered as we address the cost of higher education: technology, duplication and financing.
Technology. The rapid advances in learning technologies have the capacity to help reduce the high cost of instruction. We’ve known this for some time. New technologies are regularly announced that could, if adopted, help reduce the cost of instruction. A “blue-ribbon” task force on the role of technology in reducing the cost of higher education would identify exciting new possibilities for students, universities and the state to consider.
Duplication. This sensitive topic is sometimes discussed (in whispered tones) in the hallways of our legislature and among higher education policy-makers from time to time. It is well-known that our colleges and universities offer a wide array of academic programs, many of which are duplicated on many if not all campuses. There is a good case for duplicating some basic programs in the arts, sciences, humanities and social sciences. There is not, however, a good case for duplicating high-cost programs at six, seven or more of our state university campuses but since each university operates autonomously, little can be done to limit such duplication. The issue of duplication offers a great opportunity for university leaders to engage in a collaborative venture to reduce unnecessary duplication in the interest of cost. This could potentially be an opportunity to offer a broader array of programs that are not currently available in the right locations.
Financing. Nearly a decade ago I was shocked to find that a one-cent sales tax devoted to higher education in Ohio would allow all our universities to virtually eliminate tuition for resident undergraduate students. A half-cent increase in sales tax would allow our universities to cut the cost of tuition for these students virtually in half. I continue to believe strongly that the high cost of public higher education in Ohio is a retardant to economic development. An investment by the public on the order of a half-cent sales tax devoted to reducing public university tuition would be a great stimulus for closing Ohio’s higher education gap and attracting companies, bringing thousands of jobs to the state. This is the power of higher education in today’s economy.
Just food for thought. I’d be interested in your views on how to address the problem of high tuition in our state’s universities. We need to find a solution soon.
Dan Johnson is director of global initiatives, president emeritus and distinguished university professor of public policy and economic development at the University of Toledo. Email him at email@example.com.