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In Need of a Persuasive Story

In Need of a Persuasive Story

January 24, 2008

Late last year I was in Washington, D.C., listening to government officials and policy analysts discuss the state of higher education in America. The tone of those conversations, as has been the case since the advent of the Spellings Commission, was troubling. I left with the clear impression that there is widespread distrust of colleges and universities in Washington on both sides of the political aisle.

That means suspicion of higher education is not a partisan issue and that the era of accountability and cost sensitivity will not end when the Bush administration leaves town. Key public officials like Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy and California Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon will probably continue to rail about rising college costs. And the higher education sector will probably continue to be hampered by its inability to tell a believable story about why tuitions keep increasing at rates higher than inflation.

To a certain degree, suspicion and distrust of colleges and universities are problems of the higher education sector’s own making. College and university leaders, most of whom were faculty members at some point, have the professor’s reflex against simplified explanations. Professorial skepticism toward neat, tidy, simple (but often inaccurate) answers is understandable and admirable. But politicians and reporters like to hear coherent and compelling narratives that are easy to understand and easy to retell to their constituents and readers. Higher education has often failed to grasp this. And it shows in the explanations higher education gives about the rising cost issue: They are all too often defensive or obfuscating -- leaving the public scratching its head in perplexity.

The stories being told in Washington about higher education, as everyone working at a college or university knows, are not flattering. The dominant stories coming from the mouths of politicians and the pens of reporters portray America’s colleges and universities in an arms race to out-compete each other on rankings, wealth, prestige, student diversity, scholarships and financial aid, faculty compensation, teaching loads, and non-academic facilities. College professors are depicted as disinterested in students and eager to have decreased teaching responsibilities. College administrators are pilloried as overpaid, unnecessary bureaucrats -- although, ironically, government intervention nearly always requires colleges to hire more administrators to comply with the reporting requirements imposed by legislators. And who hasn’t read or heard stories of dormitories overbuilt in the image of four-star luxury hotels or of million dollar-climbing walls? Tales of the latter have become the stuff of urban legend.

The dominant meme describes American colleges and universities as institutions driven by their own self-interest rather than by the interests of students or of society. Lost in the debate is any sense of the public’s interest in anything other than the politics of resentment, which builds its persuasive case through portrayals of colleges and universities as bloated, elitist, inefficient, unworthy of tax payer support, and lacking the ethical high ground. If only colleges and universities were run like a business goes a common critique that warms the hearts of the for-profit higher education sector and its key Congressional supporters like Ohio Rep. John Boehner. Applying business principles is the panacea according to this simplistic but seductive narrative that has put colleges and universities on the defensive since the beginning of the Reagan administration.

Magazine and newspaper articles increasingly depict a college education in business terms, as a consumer good to be purchased. Customers (students and their parents) are encouraged to seek the best deal, to bargain, to devise strategies to pay the lowest price for the highest quality. The ubiquitous so-called merit scholarship, which in most cases is nothing more than a price discount to lure another customer, makes it nearly impossible for any five parents with children at the same college to know how much the others are paying. The situation is akin to the airline industry where invariably no two seats on the same plane are sold for the same amount.

The emphasis on cost to the paying customer casts a college education squarely in the realm of commodity. And to be sure, there has always been an inherent commodity aspect to the experience of getting a college education. Most American colleges have never been free, and historically most students have entered college seeking upward economic and social mobility. But too much emphasis on college as commodity, voiced by students or by colleges, corrupts higher education, leading colleges and universities to be seen primarily as businesses churning out product rather than as places that inspire, enlighten, and uplift society. Even the colleges themselves have encouraged this kind of thinking to justify why students and parents should be willing to pay the rising cost of college--as institutions often cite studies showing a $1 million lifetime earnings advantage for college graduates over non-college graduates.

On the issue of rising tuitions, colleges and universities, as they have exuberantly embraced marketplace paradigms, have let themselves get defined as money-driven, price-gouging wealth-accumulating firms rather than as cathedrals of learning. This has happened because colleges and universities have not been bold in telling their collective story. Instead, colleges and universities have let themselves end up in the defensive position of rebutting the unflattering stories and simplistic caricatures about why college costs so much. Those stories and caricatures, when left unchecked, undermine the public’s trust in higher education.

There are potential opportunities for colleges and universities to begin shaping the story from within higher education rather than simply reacting to stories from without. But the first step is to craft accurate, uncomplicated, and believable narratives.

The case for the small liberal arts college offers one starting point. Providing an education at a small liberal arts college is a highly individualized process. The liberal arts college classroom is more akin to an artisan’s workshop or an artist’s studio than to a factory floor or an assembly line. If higher education must be forced to adopt the language of the business transaction, then perhaps the small liberal arts college must make the case, as Reed College’s President Colin Diver often has, that consumers always pay higher prices for, and are more willing to make sacrifices to afford, handcrafted goods in comparison to mass-produced goods. Diver’s argument is compelling because it is self-evident to most consumers that craftsmanship is synonymous with quality.

Nor is it a stretch to claim that a liberal arts education is the product of craftsmanship, the result of a slow, labor-intensive process that produces individually unique student learners whose lives have been transformed for the better by four years at the institution. One enduring image of the small college education has the eminent 19th century Williams College professor Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other end. The Hopkins image came to symbolize the intimate small college transmission of knowledge from sage to student.

Colleges that Change Lives, by the former New York Times education editor Loren Pope, has garnered a following due to its message that small costly private colleges, like Earlham and Reed, perform a kind of educational alchemy not easily broken down into bottom-line terms but somehow able to deliver on the promise of the book’s title. Pope’s book has drawn attention to 40 colleges that are not the household names invoked by politicians trying to make hay out of critiques of higher education. Yet Pope’s 40 colleges are collectively one example of the kind of compelling story that, if told more often, might help private higher education regain the public’s trust.

When justifying the high cost of college, is it enough to assert, as countless presidents of private liberal arts colleges have, that the actual production costs of educating a student are sometimes double the tuition charge? I do not think so. In fact, I suspect that the public hears such arguments and imagines that higher education is wasteful. After all, what product costs twice as much to produce as its sale price? What firm survives producing such a product? Discerning consumers wonder how much of that double-the-sticker-price true cost pays for the hidden costs of fund raising, public relations, student recruiting, and athletic programs; that is, enterprises not regarded as being at the core of most colleges and universities, but precisely the areas that many people immediately associate with the runaway cost of higher education.

Rather than change the subject when politicians rail about the so-called non-academic costs that get passed on to students in the tuition bill, colleges need to hit the issue head on. Straight talk about non-core costs might be appealing to the public and disarming to higher education’s critics. There are potentially persuasive ways to justify the non-academic costs of running a college or university. For example, why not just assert that the expenses incurred by college fundraising and endowment management enterprises are examples of how colleges gather non-tuition revenues to keep their tuitions from rising even higher? College leaders can say with authority that those revenue-chasing expenditures, rather than being cited in the cost of educating a student, might more appropriately be charged off against the endowment and fund raising returns. The public might then understand that, without the marginal dollars netted through fund raising and endowment returns, tuitions would be much higher.

Similarly, colleges can justify their public relations and recruiting expenditures as the price of bringing in quality students and faculty as well as the price of enhancing the perceived value of the degree the student will earn. Finally, colleges can argue that they provide their students a unique lifetime affiliation that accrues benefit long after the last tuition check gets paid. How many firms can say that about their product?

And if none of those arguments work, colleges can do what they have been loath to; that is, point to the students and parents in the consuming public and say, in the words of an old Toyota commercial, “you asked for it, you got it.” That’s right. College tuitions have gone up because students and their parents expect more from the college experience than ever. Meeting those expectations does not happen when institutions run in place to hold down costs. To get less expensive colleges, the public will have to accept less expansive college degree programs and facilities. There is no evidence that the public is willing to do so; nor should it. In any case, both are points that higher education needs to make early and often.

Candor and transparency about the costs they charge is something colleges and universities will have to practice soon enough as Congressional interest in a “College Access and Affordability Act” has made it into the next reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). The next HEA will call for colleges to provide students and their parents with more transparent and detailed explanations of the costs they charge. The emphasis on explaining and justifying costs will, in the hopes of some members of Congress, influence colleges to hold down future tuition increases.

Higher education has already taken notice of suggestions in Congress that massive college endowments ought to be taxed and that the nation’s wealthiest universities should draw upon their billion-dollar endowments to eliminate tuition altogether. Perhaps as a result of such rhetoric, Harvard and Yale have announced increased financial aid for families with incomes between $120,000 and $180,000. Expanding eligibility for generous grant aid to families with upper middle to upper class incomes, notwithstanding all the mostly good publicity it has brought to Harvard and Yale, raises as many concerns about college costs as it addresses.

For example, are Harvard and Yale’s expansive new financial aid policies just a veiled price discount (like merit scholarships elsewhere) for families that can afford to pay? And is it not obvious to Harvard and Yale that expanding financial aid eligibility to encompass families in the top 5% income bracket -- based on the argument that if they need help everyone does -- is the latest evidence that colleges and universities charge amounts beyond the reach of most American families? Many of us in higher education, while we applaud Harvard and Yale’s increasing interest in providing access, wonder how candid those universities will be about their motives as they defend the new initiatives going forward.

Making a candid case regarding college costs is an approach I have seen work for Reed College. In information sessions, when I have justified Reed’s tuition charges using images of artisans and craftsmen to describe what goes into a Reed education, I have seen the description resonate with audiences. I believe that those audiences have responded positively because they understand that they usually pay more for individually tailored and handcrafted items that have an inherent quality advantage built into them. Just as most people recognize the value of seeing or being part of a live, rather than a recorded, performance or of getting a poem or artwork created specifically for them, rather than receiving a mass-produced card, they understand the value of a handcrafted education.

The students and parents I speak to seem to appreciate that Reed addresses the high cost issue directly and offers an explanation that sounds consistent with the values and the day-to-day academic life of the college. They also seem to understand that a small college like Reed provides a highly personalized education -- where every student has the apprentice scholar experience of a thesis -- that cannot easily be replicated at a lower cost. The idea that life changing goes on in addition to degree acquisition is a powerful closer -- to use sales parlance -- for Reed.

In the midst of brick throwing at colleges over rising costs, Reed has chosen to make its here-is-why-we-cost-so-much case by citing the value of its handcrafted education. The approach works for Reed because it reflects the college’s mission and communicates institutional values. But the approach also works because Reed has constructed a narrative about college costs that makes sense and sounds believable rather than like defensive back pedaling or dissembling. Perhaps by tying their explanations of rising college costs to their distinctive missions and identities other colleges and universities can craft similar persuasive narratives.

Bio

Paul Marthers is dean of admission at Reed College.

 

 

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