The changing college landscape--or--College Costs Too &^%$ Much

College. Tuition. Infuriates. I recently returned from a counselor-only tour of a dozen or so private colleges on the East Coast. Beautiful campuses, dedicated staff, inspiring students...exorbitant tuition. On the flight home, processing what we had seen and heard, I felt, simultaneously, enthusiastic about the future --the students were extraordinary—and dismayed by the future—higher ed is on a precipice. At one point during the tour, we ‘experts’ in education failed miserably at doing our jobs. Imagine: a panel discussion of admissions staff describing the attributes of their respective institutions to a room full of high school and independent counselors. One admissions officer, after proudly describing their brand new, multi-million dollar 'Center of Innovation' is asked about financial aid.  Without irony, with no perceptible “Gee, sorry to be the bearer of bad news”, we are told tuition will be, all in, $100,000 annually within a few short years. And, epic fail, none of us stood up and shot back “innovate this, dude: your tuition is already insane!!”

Why is college expensive?

Increased costs of health insurance, amenities, administrative staff and ordinary inflation all play a role. It’s a multi-factorial blame game. Colleges grapple with how to balance academic quality, diversity, affordability, and positive net tuition revenue. Families, in turn, grapple with tuition payments, mortgage payments, saving for retirement. The rise in student debt is complex as well: high interest rates, horrible counseling, degree-completion issues, poor preparation for college level work, scammy for-profits with admissions staff that are commission based. Moral: There are no easy solutions because there is no one problem.

Facts about the Changing College Landscape:

  • 5% decline in high school graduates by 2020
  • New student enrollment targets were met by only 34% of colleges nationwide
  • Population growth is happening but only in South and West
  • 7.1 million students have taken at least one online class
  • 17% of all college students are engaged in 100% online programs
  • Enrolled student growth rate is in the >25 year old demographic (ie working adults)

Emerging Non-Traditional College Options:

  • Community Colleges offering 4-year degrees (as in California)
  • Online programs
  • Competency based, certificate or degree programs
  • Income-Share Agreements (students pay their school back a percentage of their future income for a specific period)

The fact that admissions officers at these high-tier institutions (read: those with good endowments) transparently state that financial aid is for the VERY low-income families with smart, hard-working students--obviously, a good thing--and that the VERY high-income families with smart, hard-working students subsidize these families by paying full-sticker price leaves one important point to consider: What about the middle-income families. The more astute admissions staff say that their definition of ‘diversity’ should include a wider definition of socio-economic status in addition to geographic areas (eg. rural America). We’ll see. I rant about college costs every year but, to me, the great shake out in higher education has only just begun. 


Allison Henderson

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