A Message to Parents: How Families Contribute to College Costs

It’s early April and most students have received word from the colleges and universities to which they applied.  They – and their families – have reached one important marker on a road traveled that had detours, bumps, and occasional bad weather.  But, the visibility improved and the direction is clearer now.

Congratulations to these applicants turned matriculants.  You have (or likely will by the end of April) made an important adult decision.  For most of you, it’s a good one and an important new beginning.

Yet for many, especially traditional students arriving on campus as freshly minted high school graduates, this decision is also a family one.  It’s been fascinating over the past several days to watch once again the time-honored ritual of families reacting with pride, relief, nervousness and some dismay over the implications of college acceptance.

Within the range of reaction, the one that always surprises me the most is the grumbling that occurs over the cost of attendance.  It’s different than the sticker price, although the two are often confused in the mainstream media. Continue reading

College Sports and the Student Athlete

Last week  Peter Sung Ohr, the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago, ruled that football players at Northwestern University could unionize. In issuing the ruling, Ohr found that the players were employees of the university.

The ruling sent shock waves reverberating through American higher education since no one expected this outcome. It presumes that Northwestern’s football players are under contract to perform services (letter of intent, scholarship award), subject to the employer’s control (coaching and scholarship rules) and paid for these services (scholarships). As the employer, Northwestern benefited from the revenue made by the football team and received by the school.

The implication for sports teams where revenue does not exceed expenses or for Title IX remains unclear.

In an important way, the Northwestern University ruling represents something far greater than a decision about whether or not athletes at a Division I university can unionize. It speaks to the changing meaning of the term “student athlete” across collegiate sports. Continue reading

And the Winner Is . . . .

It’s time.  The college acceptance letters — distributed via the web or in “fat or thin” envelopes — are beginning to trickle out as we move to the formal notification date of April 1.  Those who have applied to American colleges and universities are experiencing some mix of optimism, consternation, anxiety and resignation.

Now is probably the best time to speak directly to these students.

First, congratulations on your acceptance letters.  You worked hard and thought about who you are and are likely to become. At many places, you made a convincing case for acceptance.  For many of you, this will be the first “adult” decision of your lives, brokered by the input and well-meaning suggestions of family and friends.  Be prepared for the cacophony of voices and find your safe harbor. Continue reading

Rethinking the Role of College Career Centers for Humanities Graduates

Numerous studies indicate that the skills produced by a quality liberal arts education correspond precisely to what employers seek beyond technical training. The ability to articulate, write, apply quantitative methods, use technology, and work in a collaborative setting will continue to shape the parameters of the skill set needed in the 21st century.

So, why do liberal arts graduates, especially humanities majors, suffer from inaccurate and inconsistent portrayals of their attractiveness to employers?

There are likely several reasons behind this inconsistency. Continue reading

Taxing the Economic Engine: Higher Education vs. ‘The Town’

One impact of the great recession has been resurgence in demand by cities and towns that colleges and universities pay a greater portion of the region’s tax bill.

Municipal authorities make valid arguments to support these demands. They point to the percentage of taxable land taken off the tax rolls by higher education institutions. They note additional burdens on police, fire and first responder calls. City officials differentiate further by “type of use” among facilities and college owned properties and land.

Further, in many instances the request for new taxes–typically called PILOT’s (or “payments-in-lieu-of-taxes”) – extends increasingly to public as well as private higher education. Interestingly, these requests do not typically encompass basic education or other nonprofit groups like churches. Continue reading

Some Principles to Guide the Changing Face of College Athletics

Seldom have the shifting sands upon which college athletics are built been more apparent than today. For those of us who have an interest in college sports, including millions of loyal alumni, the choice of an athletic conference is roughly tantamount to “the company that you keep.”

At innumerable colleges and universities, nothing stirs alumni passion and donor support more than athletics. Regrettably, athletics is too often the defining face of higher education.

The reasons are complex – psychological, socio cultural, and economic – but few institutions lead successfully with the quality of their education program. College and university websites, often the first “curbside appeal” moment for prospective applicants, typically disproportionately cite athletics over academics in their news section.

Let’s be clear about the value of athletics. A good athletic program can bring a community together. It inspires loyalty among alumni, the local community, students, faculty, staff and donors. The best athletic programs teach student-athletes valuable lessons in time management, competitiveness, ethics, and how to work in a collaborative setting. And, athletics sometimes equates with good fundraising numbers. Continue reading

Show Me the Money: Higher Education and the Workforce

Writing for the Associated Press, Hope Yen reported recently that the earnings gap between young adults with and without bachelor’s degrees has stretched to its widest level in nearly half a century. She suggested that it is a sign of the growing value of a college education despite rising tuition costs.

Citing Pew Research Center data, Ms. Yen noted that Pew found that even among the two thirds of young adults who borrowed money for college, about 86 percent said the degrees had been, or will be, worth it.

Pew researchers acknowledged that the field of study in college does seem to matter. Those with STEM degrees were most likely to say that their current job is “very closely” related to the college or graduate field of study – roughly 60 percent – compared to 43 percent for both liberal arts and business majors. Continue reading

Mind the Gap: Building Bridges Between Higher Education and Its Students

I always learn from and enjoy the comments made by readers of this blog, print media and through social media like Twitter.  One comment struck me this week, in particular, that cast light on a growing and persistent problem within higher education.  How do we create a pipeline between higher education sectors to benefit our students?

The reader commented that I was mistaken to say that enrollments were off this academic year, noting that overall enrollment was steady or had increased slightly in several education sectors.  This analysis is correct, although what I was saying is that enrollments at many American colleges and universities are off, even if the reviewed sector’s numbers are flat or slowing growing.

However we define it, enrollments in higher education are less robust than we would wish even when we take into account the lingering impact of the great recession.  Furthermore, patterns are shifting dramatically at least over the mid term away from for-profit and toward two-year institutions over the longer term.  The ultimate impacts of these trends are hard to decipher, especially until employers and state and federal education officials make their positions clearer on a growing debate between certificates and degrees. Continue reading

The Crisis in How We Fund Higher Education

A survey of the state of American higher education in 2014 presents a distressing picture. Enrollments are off –in some cases seriously — translating to substantial and unbudgeted revenue shortfalls. Higher education is labor intensive with up to 60 percent of the budget at some colleges tied to labor. Labor costs, along with health care and retiree benefits, continue to rise well ahead of inflation.

While many institutions converted variable rate to fix rate bonds successfully as the great recession deepened, their bond capacity is severely diminished. Moody’s downgrade of higher education as a sector is a broad brush analysis of a complex industry but it is a telling indicator of stress. Many colleges delayed new capital projects. The pent-up new capital demands written about widely in the trade publications cannot be fully met by traditional financing.

Perhaps most troubling is that American consumers have lost sympathy with higher education costs. While insiders can blame media pundits, politicians using polling data, and a fickle public for the diminished respect accorded to higher education, the fact is that colleges and universities are slow to change. As tuition driven schools, consumer mindset can have a dramatic effect cumulatively on a college’s bottom line. How much longer are colleges able to justify tuition increases even a point above inflation? Continue reading

Facing the Facts in Higher Education

One of the recurring themes making the higher education circuit these days is that “Paris is burning . . . and higher education’s leadership – including trustees, faculty, and most presidents – is pretending that nothing is happening.”

There is truth to this argument. The facts support the claims by many thoughtful educators that better economic times will not return higher education to the good old days, even if these lazy, hazy times are different than we remember them.

Indeed, it goes beyond the debate about how to create a climate for leaders who have the courage to lead. This crisis runs deeper than turning to the latest management hypothesis in vogue to “disrupt” the status quo. And it is certainly supported by shifting demographics, weakening admission numbers, soft admission yields, stratospheric tuition sticker prices, negative bond ratings, state and federal regulatory intrusion and a lingering recession to paint a dismal picture for American colleges and universities.

What are the options open to American higher education? Continue reading