Task for new UW President: Make college affordable

Published in The News Tribune, July 8, 2011

The University of Washington has made an interesting choice for its new President.  Michael Young, who this week took over UW’s realm, does not seem to fit the liberal reputation of this institution.  But let’s hope he proves successful in addressing the conservative features of the University.  Such conservatism marks most of the nation’s public colleges and universities, and poses one of higher education’s largest challenges.

Some background is needed to understand this.  Let’s take what is fast becoming one of the most challenging issues in higher education:  providing an affordable education for the state’s students. Over the last two years, tuition at the state’s flagship universities has risen by over 30 percent.  Word is that next year it will go up by another 20 percent.  At this rate, a freshman starting at the UW or WSU this fall can expect to dish out over $50,000 on tuition before she graduates.

The challenge of providing citizens with college access is occurring precisely when college attendance makes a bigger difference in the options available to young adults.  While higher education has never been the social equalizer that its promoters claim, it’s more important than ever that universities attract youth from all walks of life, and support them through to the successful completion of their degree.

And there are other challenges facing higher education.  For one, so many students enter college without college-level skills.  Since those with the weakest skills often come from lower income families, this makes it all the more difficult to rely on colleges to equalize opportunities.  Not only are low-income youth much less likely to go to college, but of those who do, maybe one in three actually completes their degree.

A final challenge for higher education is that the need for services typically provided by higher education – information, critical analysis, new perspectives, and intellectual leadership on the complex social problems we collectively face – is greater than ever.

In an ideal world, then, higher education would be responding to these challenges by assuming a larger role in addressing these broader educational needs.  It would work more directly and seamlessly with the public school system; and it would provide intellectual leadership beyond what we typically offer within the boundaries of our campuses.

But alas, just as the mission of higher education should be expanding, the public commitment is retreating.  So the real challenge facing higher education is redefining its mission while making do with fewer public dollars.

But institutions of higher education throughout the nation have been slow to respond to these changing conditions – after all, these changes began over 30 years ago.  Rather than articulating a newer vision of its public mission consistent with the challenges above, and developing strategies for achieving this new vision, institutions usually privilege the status quo.  Rather than revisiting its values and priorities and articulating a new vision to better achieve them, most higher education systems tend to prioritize protecting, preserving, and arguing for the status quo.

And so dollars continue to go into money sinks like intercollegiate athletics.  Facilities remain underused.  Curricular offerings are rarely rethought, and instructional practices remain unchanged.  And the trend of more money being allocated to administration and student services continues.

This business-as-usual tendency means that in today’s environment, serving students and the broader public interest can often take a back seat in decision making.

It’s in this sense that colleges and universities across the nation tend to be conservative institutions.  Such conservatism is functional in stable environments.  But it isn’t when conditions are changing as quickly as they are these days.

These are indeed challenging times for higher education.  For sure, good leadership alone isn’t enough for colleges to successfully re-invent themselves.  But it’s an essential element.

So here’s hoping that President Young will help bring higher education in Washington into the 21st century.