Expand the Conversation

If President Obama is to find solutions to college cost and student debt problems, he should talk more to leaders of comprehensive and community colleges that focus on access, writes Jonathan Gibralter.

December 6, 2011

The fact that President Obama and Secretary Duncan met with the leaders of public and private educational institutions to better understand how to keep the price of higher education affordable and contain student loan amounts is to be commended. 

But the afternoon’s discourse on access, affordability and attainment would have been advanced significantly by reviewing the practices already under way in a sector of higher education not engaged often enough by elected officials and think tanks in Washington.

The thousands of small to medium public and private comprehensive universities and community colleges that exist throughout the United States are where the rubber hits the road for the majority of collegiate students in our nation. And, out of necessity, the leaders of these institutions have the practice of doing more with fewer dollars down to a science.

At the White House Roundtable
For Inside Higher Ed's account
of what transpired at Monday's
event, please click here.


We represent a sector that educates the vast majority of our nation’s college students, yet only a handful of the invitees for today’s event reflect our open-access mission.  Had the Administration wanted insight on reaching the ambitious 2020 graduation goal outlined by President Obama as quickly as possible or truly addressing concerns about student loan loads they would have asked for additional participation and input from our institutions.  We deserved additional seats at the table. 

As President of Frostburg State University, in the University System of Maryland, it is important to me to give voice to the work that we do so well.  If one looks across the country we see countless examples of the colleges and universities that are truly the foundations of their communities -- without whom the economies and work forces of their region would surely collapse.  And our institutions educate and graduate their students with amazingly low per-student costs.

We have no choice but to be affordable, because the resources don’t exist to be anything but lean operations. We continue to find solutions to issues such as diminishing funds and resources, the inability to raise tuition at the same rates as in-state peers, marginalization in our state capitals when compared with our states’ research flagships, and demoralization of our world class faculty for their choice to work at teaching institutions.

Regardless of these obstacles, we persist and provide a high-quality education to our students in support of our missions.  We are focused on educating the best and brightest as well as those students who may not have graduated at the top of their class but understand the importance of a college degree and are working hard to earn theirs. Access isn’t just a catchphrase for our institutions, or a new focus -- it is at the heart of what we are all about.

We utilize best practices such as course redesign in our “gatekeeper” courses, and use online education and technology to engage students through many modalities. We understand how to stretch a dollar while protecting the classroom experience for our students, and our faculty are excellent at employing innovative approaches to retain students and encourage them to graduate.

Frostburg State focuses on experiential education and engaging our students both locally and internationally. We operate only 40 academic majors, unlike many other more expensive universities that have hundreds of majors, and our new majors must intertwine general education with the potential for a great career.

My peer institutions uniquely pave the path to that future by taking to heart our responsibility to educate students about the impact of student loan debt.  Although our tuition is more affordable, it isn’t insignificant, especially when paid with compoundg interest. 

We understand our role in helping students to be informed consumers should they need to borrow funds for their tuition.  This is the only way our graduates can pursue and succeed in the careers and industries that will help our nation reclaim its competitiveness. 

We aren’t seen as members of the education elite and our towers aren’t ivory or covered with ivy.  Instead, we are where learning occurs and we are willing to share our best practices.

As President Obama and Secretary Duncan consider how to keep higher education affordable, I ask that they include more than a very small sampling of the institutions that are the backbone of their communities and for generations have been models for high quality education and affordability.

The realities of our nation’s economy and the discontent among a growing number of Americans demand it.


Jonathan Gibralter is the president of Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Md.


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