In the State of the Union address, President Barack Obama approached higher education from the same economic perspective he usually does. He stressed how education builds a well-trained workforce and fuels a high-tech economy, opening up the subject of higher education with the truism, “The more education you have, the more likely you are to have a job and work your way into the middle class.”
All that is well and good. I think most everybody agrees the United States needs affordable, accessible, high-quality higher education if it wants to remain competitive in a global economy driven by science and technology. Everybody acknowledges education prepares students to participate in today’s workforce, and it’s widely accepted there is a high correlation between education and innovation.
In that sense, Obama was preaching to the choir when he remarked, “Our citizens must have access to the education and training that today’s jobs require.” What was more interesting were his comments on the affordability of college education.
Despite the high degree of importance Americans generally ascribe to it, higher education can hardly be called affordable and is certainly not accessible to all. I won’t even reference statistics — if you’re reading this, you know what I’m talking about. Obama touched on this when he said, “… taxpayers cannot continue to subsidize the soaring cost of higher education. Colleges must do their part to keep costs down, and it’s our job to make sure they do.”
I’m glad Obama pointed out colleges are both part of the solution and part of the problem.
University education undoubtedly plays a central role in the future of the U.S. economy — it’s foundational to the computer industry, green energy, health care, etc. Nobody argues that. The problem is it’s become prohibitively expensive.
If education is supposed to be the foundation of this nation’s economy, making it accessible should probably be a priority. Making high-quality education a priority and demanding affordable education are not mutually exclusive. I understand the importance of education — that’s why I’m here — but I also think college education in the form we have it today is completely unsustainable.
Just look around and ask yourself how much of your tuition is going toward your education, and how much of it is going toward the never-ending construction on Library Mall (what are they building?), or new dining facilities or administrative costs.
There’s an uncountable number of opportunities for American universities to streamline their operations. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like these schools will do so willingly — after all, if it was their goal to make education affordable, we wouldn’t be looking at five or six figures worth of student loan debt after graduation. On the contrary, it seems universities will need to be told, either by students or Washington or both, to spend efficiently and keep tuition down.
Obama explained he will be releasing a “’College Scorecard,’” which will “compare schools based on a simple criteria: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.” To me, this doesn’t seem like a solution — after all, anybody who’s ever been through the college application process knows students and parents compare and contrast schools based on quality and price ad nauseum. Centralizing that information on a scorecard would be helpful for prospective college students and their families, but it won’t tell them anything they don’t already know.
All the same, to the extent it highlights the problem, it’s a step in the right direction, and it will certainly put pressure on universities to lower the cost of tuition.
I don’t want the University of Wisconsin to be a case study in overpriced higher education. I want it to be a prototype of a sustainable model for American universities. I want this university to start figuring out how to continue to maintain the highest standard in college education, but at a reasonable cost.
Charles Godfrey ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in physics and math.