My View from South Hill
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
This is a time of rapid change at IC and in higher education generally. We have entered a period in which we are challenged to operate differently in order to continue to flourish. As a result, there is a great deal going on right now, including IC 20/20 implementation as well as the Effectiveness and Affordability Review that we are conducting with the assistance of Huron Education. The challenges are serious. If we respond to these challenges with vision and determination, however, we have an opportunity to create an Ithaca College that is not only financially sound but also better and more respected than ever.
The central challenge lies with our ability in the future to attract students who will be willing and able to pay IC’s cost of attendance (tuition plus room and board) that has now surpassed $50,000 per year. What has changed, you might ask -- why won't students continue to seek admission to IC as they always have in the past? We are challenged from a number of directions. The spread of online learning opportunities -- many of them inexpensive and some of them free -- grabs the headlines. But the bigger threat is one that we created ourselves over a period of decades: the accelerating cost of an IC education. We are not unlike other private colleges and universities in having increased our cost of attendance over the last thirty years at a rate of 5 to 6 percent per year – a bit more than double the rate of inflation and nearly double the rate of growth in family incomes. People value what we have to offer, and so in the past families have been willing to invest their life savings and to take out second mortgages on their homes in order to send their sons and daughters to IC. Those sons and daughters, in turn, have been willing to take on ever higher levels of debt.
However, willingness to do whatever it takes to be able to attend IC is now changing in ways that our admission and financial aid staff encounter every day. The loss of home values beginning in 2008-2009 suddenly eliminated one of the major ways that people paid for college. The growth of student debt has reached what many consider to be a breaking point and has led an increasing number of people to ask if college is worth it. It does not help that we have faced for several years now a relatively weak job market for recent college graduates (though it is still WAY better to have a college degree in this job market than not to have one!).
The reservations felt by many prospective students and their families are becoming increasingly public. If you read magazines like Time or Newsweek you will have seen in the last few months cover stories questioning whether a traditional college education is worth it anymore, and lauding new online alternatives. Public anger about both cost and quality has also been echoed in government, where there have been congressional inquiries into college pricing and into whether colleges are doing all they can to help students complete their degrees. The cost of college was a presidential campaign issue this past fall, perhaps for the first time ever.
Ithaca College has been part of this cost spiral. Over time, we have built out a beautiful and attractive campus. We have added academic majors and minors as well as programs for student services and support. We have added faculty and staff to support and deliver those programs. We have offered the best of the best, and been proud to do so. Students pay for all of it.
What we did was not wrong and it was not wasteful. To a considerable extent, it was fueled by student demand for small classes and low faculty to student ratios, the best academic and recreational facilities, and the latest equipment. If you take a moment to look with fresh eyes at all that we offer -- both the physical facilities and the 1,500 professionals dedicated to providing the best possible educational and living experience for 6,500 students -- then you will feel a well-deserved burst of pride.
But those great accomplishments are no longer enough when an increasing proportion of the college-aged population cannot afford to attend IC. Even if prospective students feel that IC offers the best possible educational experience, the one they would like to have in an ideal world, they will not come here if they cannot afford to do so. We have for decades been an attractive option for students despite being three times as expensive (before IC financial aid) as a SUNY campus for a New York resident. We must in the future be seen as an attractive and affordable option for students despite being 20 times as expensive as the online undergraduate degree programs that are just now emerging. People still want excellence but to an increasing extent they are also demanding VALUE.
So here is our challenge: We must increase the value of an IC education. Value = Quality / Cost, meaning that we must increase our quality and at the same time substantially rein in the growth of cost.
Please be clear that BOTH parts of the value equation are vital. We are never going to be one of the cheaper higher education options, so prospective students will not want to come to IC if we are not seen as offering the very best in quality. But if we continue to add to quality by increasing cost well beyond the rate of inflation, then prospective students will not be able to come to IC.
Greater quality at a lower cost. That is quite a challenge! But we have been working on solutions with respect to both quality and cost for several years now, and many of you have played significant roles in identifying those solutions. I will discuss those solutions beginning next week.
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