Counting the Cost

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There has been a crisis brewing in higher education for some time and there does not appear to be any kind of systemic resolution on the horizon. In American culture, colleges and universities have always been a significant element of who we are. In fact, it may be one of few remaining “rites of passage” for many young people.

However, we need to see education as more than just something to do. It is a thing of value that can have a lasting and enduring impact. But it may be in jeopardy. Simply put, the cost of a college education across the country continues to rise at a rate greater than the cost of almost everything else, except perhaps health care, and a rate greater than most family incomes. Students and their families are being required to take on greater amounts of debt, shop hard for the best financial aid packages they can get, and enroll in the most abbreviated programs they can find, while state and federal aid is reduced. It is a disturbing reality, but it is our reality. And while it is easy to despair, these challenges could and should bring out the best in us, inspire creative thinking, and thoughtful consideration of what the true value of a costly thing is.

As a university president, I have the opportunity to hear the thoughts and concerns of a variety of groups and learn from them. Presidents and administrators talk together all the time about striving to keep their schools vibrant and growing in order to attract more students while containing costs. This is not easy because things like utilities and health insurance cost increases are beyond their control. Parents of prospective students share freely their struggles in weighing options and dealing with the difficulty of making significant sacrifices to send their children to their college of choice, or asking them to settle for a less than preferred option. Current students express concern about whether they can finish and how they will manage debt loads and find employment in a tough job market after graduation. And faculty members advocate for their students about the cost burden, while at the same time want them to have a quality experience via smaller class sizes or new technology tools.

Add to the mix the cultural consumerist expectations for the college experience and the voices of the consultants who are earnestly striving to help schools stay competitive. Often the advice, based upon cultural expectations, is to increase aid, expand programs, build new facilities, and hire more prolific faculty while aggressively advertising in order to reach more students. All of these things come at a cost, which is almost always passed on to the student. Today, growing enrollment and facilities is often seen as the only way to stay on top. But to grow you must spend. Increasing opportunities and amenities for students may be a good thing, but it also increases their expectations as consumers. They want more so we spend more, which in the end costs them more. It is a vicious cycle, one that will require some real systemic change to end because our culture influences our perception that the best value is the biggest, fastest, flashiest, or trendiest thing out there. We must rethink our assumptions concerning higher education and show real wisdom in weighing cost against value. We need to choose what is best and most needed and invest in those things that matter most. Our values should matter when determining value. Parents should ask about the mission of a school, the quality and character of its faculty, and the real value of all the costs of a college or university education. These go beyond the degree handed over in a commencement ceremony.

It is true that many schools have bought into the growth model as the answer for solving the higher education crisis. “If we expand we will thrive” seems to be the conventional wisdom. But this may be the undoing of many schools. Students cost schools money. The revenue generated by tuition and fees is spent on facilities, programs, and services as fast as it comes in. The pressure to grow in order to compete is problematic. The higher education market is simply over-saturated (like most markets in America). There may be too many options, too many choices, and not enough of a market share to go around. In the years to come, more schools will likely close, not because they did not expand facilities and programs, or have great histories or legacies, or noble foundings, or even quality and gainfully employed graduates. Many will close because the context in which they now operate will not tolerate the saturation point. New ways of thinking about things are needed that are different from the “new ways” of the past ten years. Higher education must stop thinking about how to perpetuate itself as an industry and think more about its role and responsibilities to its students, society, and the world. The answer is not to design college and university programs that are cheap and quick. That will not do. We can and need to do more than hand out credentials. There is a reason the pejorative term “degree mill” remains in our vernacular.

We expect students to do more than receive a piece of paper. We expect them to become educated, thoughtful, socially adept, better communicators and thinkers, able to work with and live with others because they have had the experiences that allowed them to practice these things. In effect, they become more than credentialed workers; they become better citizens and people. At least that is the goal for most of us in this line of work. And for a place like Cairn it goes beyond that to speak to the spiritual development and commitments of the students and the heart of our mission because we educate them to serve Christ. Their lives are the markers of whether the cost is justified.

I believe our charge as leaders in higher education is to show wisdom in using our resources in a way that brings real value to the work of educating students, not just perceived value so that we can get more attention in a competitive market. Honest acknowledgment of the situation matters. We know that students and their families have tough choices to make, take on debt to be here, and make significant sacrifices to earn our degrees. Creative problem solving and good management matter also. We spend considerable time thinking about and talking about how to deliver a quality education without running up costs. We ask our faculty and staff to do as much as possible with what we have while seeking new and creative ways to realize efficiencies and also invest in the Cairn facilities and programs. But this needs to be done in ways that are both strategic and sustainable. These two words are very important to us in exercising good stewardship, so we all think and pray and weigh the cost against the value in our various roles as parents, teachers, and leaders. This is a good thing. There is no question in my mind that what we offer is worth the cost, but everyone’s situation and capacity is different. The days we are in demand of us to count the cost. And our decision making will be better for it. I think this is the principle behind the Lord Jesus’ words in Luke 14 when He challenged the multitudes following Him, saying, “Count well the cost.” Today, as we face difficult issues in our world, as our leaders struggle to find the best way through economic challenges, and as young people look down the road at their future, we should not shrink back, fold up, or quit. We must all have the wisdom to see the real and true value associated with the cost of things and the courage to follow after and invest in the things that matter most.

Todd J. Williams, Ph.D., has been the President of Cairn University since January 2008. He served as faculty and an administrator from 1996 to 2001, and then returned as Provost in 2005. 


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