In an Instagram video, former Fox News host Greta Van Susteren proclaimed that she is “scandalized” by the cost of education and how college students are saddled with “gigantic student loans.”
Viewers may well have been nodding in agreement at that point in the video. And if they heard last month’s NPR program on how more colleges are opening food pantries, it makes sense to many to say that higher education is too expensive for students, their parents and families -- both while students are enrolled in college and afterward, and whether a degree is earned or not.
But academic libraries are part of the solution in higher education rather than part of the problem, and Van Susteren quickly ran off the rails when she targeted academic libraries as the culprit.
Van Susteren complained about “vanity projects,” specifically mentioning the construction of library buildings and adding that students are footing the bill for them.
She posted similar comments on Twitter, exclaiming, “Colleges should stop building vanity projects like huge libraries and billing students -- full libraries are on our smartphones!”
Those comments, made by someone who claims to support libraries, are destructively misleading to the general public as well as higher education administrators and legislative decision makers about the significant contributions academic libraries make to teaching and learning.
To say that an academic library can be reduced to an app on a smartphone dangerously trivializes what libraries and library professionals have to offer and their real value to the higher education infrastructure -- value that far outweighs the costs associated with them.
An Artery to the Heart
Academic librarians play a vital part in the education ecosystem, putting information into context for students by distinguishing information from knowledge and offering direct assistance to constituents in a personal way that cannot be replicated by an electronic device.
In addition, students who receive information-literacy instruction as part of their courses achieve higher grades and demonstrate increased research fluency than students who do not receive such instruction. Further, a library’s research and study areas offer a destination for those who can’t afford quiet space as well as fostering social and academic community among students.
Far from being tangential to the learning process on our college campuses, libraries -- the physical buildings themselves -- are as essential to the classroom as an artery is to the heart. For example, Michigan State University recently released a heat map of the campus’s climate that found that the library was one of the most supportive spaces on campus because it affirmed students’ diverse identities through offering a variety of spaces to work differently with information, such as digital humanities labs, green screens, maker spaces and media labs -- all of which supported them in their innovative and creative academic work.
Indeed, architects who design academic libraries usually no longer see them as just iconic buildings in the design of campuses but also identify them as “sticking” spaces where students return -- due to the availability of technology, the welcoming environment for individuals and study groups, the flexibility for their own design of workspaces, as well as student-support destinations with late-night assistance.
Student and researcher demands have driven the creation of many of the newer amenities available in renovated libraries. For example, while cafés may attract attention, the majority of space and planning has been given to creation of engaging learning spaces where knowledge creation is the focus. That has compelled the vision of the learning laboratories, user-focused collaborative hubs and maker spaces that so many academic and research libraries have embraced.
While collaborative spaces can be virtual, too, we’ve found that such dynamic, interactive, face-to-face spaces in renovated libraries have resonated with our campus populations. For example after a million-dollar renovation primarily funded by donors, the College of Wooster’s library’s gate count increased to 15,000 a week for a campus of 2,000 students. College officials attribute this to the addition of CoRE, or the Collaborative Research Environment, an interactive learning space where students can develop collaborative projects using digital and traditional media, and consult with an expert research librarian, work with writing center consultants and get help digitizing their projects at a media bar.
While there may be other laboratories across a campus, they do not provide the access to information, librarian expertise and interdisciplinary integration that academic and research libraries sustain. In addition:
Academic libraries provide (for the haves and the have-nots) spaces or commons -- primarily “high-tech ready” in nature -- that offer general and subject-specific equipment, software and web-delivered content for individual access and study. They also offer collaborative spaces for students to work together with each other in small groups and with classroom faculty to study and create content.
Academic libraries provide spaces for STEM and STEAM discovery or maker space environments for students anywhere in the program or the curriculum -- especially those who don’t have access to departmental labs, where spaces are often reserved for students majoring in those specific areas.
Academic libraries provide open labs and flexible, individual computer spaces with equipment and software unique to special research or subject area populations, such as geographic information systems or statistical software packages to process data used in the study of social and natural sciences. They also serve special needs students, faculty members and staff.
Academic libraries provide not only access to content within their buildings but also equipment and technology that students can check out and use in their educational pursuits. (This takes space for not only storage but also delivery of resources.)
Meanwhile, academic library professionals, often faculty members themselves, are experts in areas of research, and they work in partnership with classroom instructors in the design and delivery of curricula. They also:
partner with classroom faculty members in the design and delivery of courses requiring critical thinking and information literacy as well as subject-targeted assignments;
are champions for and leaders in open educational resources that provide vetted, free content for students who can’t afford textbooks, a large part of the price tag of college;
build digital as well as print collections to reflect classroom faculty research, recommended research by other experts and subject content required by external regional and national accreditation bodies -- such as digital and print content for the health sciences and business-management curricula; and,
acquire, curate, design and deliver online content and competency lessons (online tutorials, streamed office hours with library experts) for students to access on their smartphones.
We invite Van Susteren to visit one or more of our nation’s fine academic libraries, such as that of her alma mater, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, or any of ACRL’s Excellence in Academic Libraries award winners. She will see firsthand the role those libraries play in the life of knowledge and information and how an investment in them is an investment in the success and future of our college students -- and, in turn, the success and future of our nation.
Julie Todaro is the president of the American Library Association and the dean of library services at Austin Community College. Irene M. H. Herold is the president of the Association of College and Research Libraries and University Librarian at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa.
I confess that, when it came to recreation centers, I was once a card-carrying member of the arched-eyebrow club. In my former position as budget director and later vice chancellor for finance for the Ohio Board of Regents, I had limited authority over campus issuance of new debt for construction. “Tut, tut, tut,” I used to think. “How could the trustees and administrators be so extravagant as to spend money on these luxurious student facilities? Why aren't running, cycling and walking on outdoor paths good enough? Why can't students do calisthenics in their dorm rooms?” (The tuts are added for dramatic effect. I never actually thought these words.)
Fortunately for the campuses and students in public institutions in Ohio, my opinion had little effect on these decisions. In terms of process, the institutions were, like Caesar's wife, above suspicion. The administrations would generally seek and receive approval from students, either through an actual referendum or through student government. Students would usually approve the projects and, most importantly, the new fees associated with them.
At the University of Cincinnati, students approved the immediate imposition of new fees for a recreation center they would never use -- due to the construction schedule -- arguing that previous generations of students had supported existing, older facilities, and that the current cohort of students were in debt for these past sacrifices and investments. The staff of the Board of Regents would review the financial viability of the project, making sure that operations and debt could be financed with the plan submitted by the campus.
I was on a road in Athens -- Ohio, not Damascus -- when I got knocked off of my proverbial ass, discovered the value of these centers and changed my opinion 180 degrees. I visited the Ping Center at Ohio University on a Saturday night. What I discovered amazed me. I found the 168,000-square-foot recreation center filled with hundreds of students, faculty and staff, exercising, competing in recreational and intramural sports, socializing, doing homework in the juice bar, and generally having productive shared experiences in a safe, comfortable and challenging environment.
At a time when binge drinking and obesity are two of the most serious health issues faced by college students, and faculty-student interactions are few and far between, I was impressed with the level and type of unstructured, positive activity I witnessed among students and faculty that night. I assume that recreation centers at other institutions serve similar purposes. In addition, at urban campuses, these centers serve as a magnet on weekends and off hours that bring people, life and income to areas that otherwise would be dark and dead. In a small way, they help keep the city alive.
For someone who is still proud of his education in the liberal arts, it took me a long time to come to appreciate the words of the Roman poet Juvenal: “Mens sana in corpore sano.”
You can look it up on your smartphone, while you're on your stationary bike, at your campus recreation center.
Richard Petrick is the retired vice chancellor for finance of the Ohio Board of Regents.
The world still comes to the United States for higher education. Our elite institutions are the best in the world. Historically, we have done a better job of providing quality education to tens of millions of people than almost any other country on earth.
Yet we’re slipping. Simply put, our graduation rates are too low, our costs are too high, and too many students are slipping through the cracks. Reformers -- and universities themselves -- grasp these realities and want wholesale changes that will fundamentally alter how we think about higher education.
Those long-term battles are important, even necessary. New innovations in distance learning and nontraditional degrees may provide new pathways for students. But such changes may take decades. In the meantime, we have millions of college students taking on ever-higher debt loads for a long, winding road to a degree. We need to make immediate changes to affirmatively lower costs – not just “increase affordability” – while we raise graduation rates. We need to work within the existing framework to do what we’re already doing, but do it better and cheaper.
The good news is we have proven methods to improve our efficiency and outcomes at our postsecondary institutions.
Take student costs. Conventional wisdom focuses on high tuition costs, but there’s a related problem that’s often overlooked. Graduating from college takes most students five or even six years, while they are planning for four. That ends up an extra 25 to 50 percent in tuition costs alone, not to mention college-related fees and the opportunity cost of not working.
Institutions can directly reduce time to degree. Recent data show that “bottleneck courses,” i.e., courses where student demand outstrips available seats, play a big role in delaying degree completion.
To put it in human terms, a student who needs Biology 201 to graduate – when a seat in Biology 201 isn’t available until next year – is wasting time and money. That dynamic is why “access to courses” consistently ranks as the biggest student complaint about higher education, according to the Noel-Levitz annual student satisfaction survey (subscription required).
The fix is relatively straightforward: offer those bottleneck courses more often. Just 5 to 10 percent of courses are responsible for the vast majority of bottlenecks, so colleges and universities can address the shortages quickly. For instance, they can ensure that their most valuable resources -- professors -- are teaching the right mix of courses to prevent bottlenecks, rather than spending limited resources on course offerings that are not needed (15-20 percent of a typical school’s schedule). Similarly, colleges can better align schedules so students don’t have to choose between two required courses, and can make sure room size is aligned to corresponding course demand.
“Quickly” is the key concept in this fix – we can save students hundreds of millions of dollars every year starting immediately. We don’t need to wait a decade, or even a year.
Addressing bottleneck courses is one of the clearest examples of changes we can make to address the problems in higher education immediately, but it is far from the only one. The two below, for instance, lead to real savings right away, but are easy to overlook:
Extensive data show that better allocation of academic space – i.e., which courses are scheduled in which classrooms at which times – is an overlooked yet vital cost issue. Better allocation of classroom resources – identifying and addressing primetime bottlenecks by focusing on room ownership, meeting pattern efficiency and last-minute cancellation, etc. – can postpone or even cancel entire expensive classroom construction projects. (Full disclosure: Ad Astra Information Systems, where Tom Shaver serves as CEO, are providing university leaders with data-based solutions that help them make these important resource allocation decisions.)
College bookstores can adopt software enabling students to take advantage of economies of scale and get their expensive textbooks for vastly reduced costs (One of us wrote an op-ed on this subject in The Hill).
There are, of course, hundreds of other solutions we can adopt right away. These solutions represent just a few ideas that directly address the nuts and bolts of providing courses to thousands of students on a single campus. These solutions aren’t glamorous. They’ll never make the front page of TheNew York Times or be the subject of a TED talk.
Yet they are key operational concerns that save real money. One large community college in the Northeast better aligned its faculty and classroom resources to offer more of the most oversubscribed courses, allowing it to enroll hundreds more students without committing new funding. All told, it improved its balance sheet by over $1.7 million in a single year. A community college system in the Midwest took a similar approach and has improved its fiscal outlook by almost $3 million in just three years. Multiply those figures by the approximately 3,000 institutions of higher education in this country, and you are looking at tremendous savings for students – and for institutions.
Will these changes singlehandedly fix the deep-seated and complicated fiscal issues afflicting our higher education system? Probably not. But can these solutions -- and others like them -- vastly improve the higher education experience for both students and institutions? There is no question they can.
In an era defined by a $16 trillion federal debt and states across the country struggling with multibillion-dollar shortfalls, we are going to see an unfortunate but inevitable reduction in government funding for higher education. Colleges are facing this reality today. They cannot afford to wait for next-generation solutions. They need this-generation solutions. Millions of students’ futures depend on it.
Gene Hickok is the former deputy U.S. secretary of education and a senior adviser at Whiteboard Advisors; Tom Shaver is CEO of Ad Astra Information Systems, a company using data mining technology to help colleges and universities improve student access and lower costs.