My View from South Hill
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
They were all, or maybe all but one, members of the class of 2025. I was looking at 17 students in Mrs. Stamm's kindergarten class at South Hill Elementary, just a stone's roll down the hill from Ithaca College. And I would soon be reading a book to them as part of her "Everyone Reads" series, through which she brings visitors to the classroom to read to her students and to tell them why reading is important in their profession.
I am normally quite comfortable talking in front of groups, but there is something unnerving about the unblinking, curious stares of five-year-old children. When Mrs. Stamm introduced me as the president of Ithaca College, I asked them if they knew what a college is. "A kind of school," volunteered one girl. But no one was sure just what sort of school a college might be.
I explained that a college is the kind of school you go to after graduating from high school. College is a little bit different from elementary and secondary school because when you go to college often you move away from home, living with other students. At this point I saw a few lips trembling, so I quickly added that you still get to see your mommy and daddy quite often. And while you are at college you do a lot of reading and you learn all kinds of interesting things, including ways of thinking that will help you lead a happy, fulfilled, and successful life.
I wasn't sure whether that explanation would mean anything to a five-year-old, but decided anyway to ask the children how many of them wanted to go to college someday. Everyone except one boy raised their hands. That wasn't enough for Mrs. Stamm, though. She said that college is a good thing and asked the little boy why he was not planning to attend. "I'm not going to college," he replied. "It's too expensive!"
Mrs. Stamm told the class that there are ways for everyone to afford college, and she is right. But as I began to read "Stranger in the Woods" to the kids, I thought about the fact that although five-year-olds aren't sure what a college is, they are already aware how expensive it can be. Clearly, we have some work to do.
The sharp increase in college costs over the last 20 years has been well documented and does not need any further comment from me here. There are good reasons for those cost increases among public colleges and universities, as state support of public higher education has waned. Among private colleges, cost increases are closely associated with the competition to offer more and better facilities, more and better services. Money is not wasted in private colleges -- how easy it would be to fix things if it were! But we have tended to take the perspective that every good idea that improves the student's educational or residential experience should be funded. And, of course, the student (along with his or her family) pays the bill.
We may now as a society have reached a turning point in this approach to higher education. After all, building temples of higher education that are excellent but unaffordable defeats the purpose. Already the magnitude of the loans that some students must pay back after graduation means that the focus of higher education becomes more and more tied to getting a job that pays as much as possible. I told the kindergartners that what you learn at college will help make you happy, fulfilled and successful -- but some of our graduates can no longer afford to focus on the "happy and fulfilled" part of that promise.
Working together, we can change this. American higher education is the best in the world -- a conclusion I reach after having had the opportunity to see universities up close in several other countries. To make a four-year college education more affordable without compromising on excellence, we will need a laser-like focus on academic quality. It will require that prospective college students value the heart of the educational experience, rather than the glitter that attends it.
It is amazing the things you learn in kindergarten.
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