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In a recent article, “Reinventing Higher Education for Affordability,” William G. Durden, president emeritus of Dickinson College, misses the mark. He employs the same old tropes about the rising costs of higher education, implying that student affairs is all about activities and overpriced amenities. As a student affairs practitioner for the last 20 years, I can honestly say that those stereotypes of the field couldn’t be further from the truth.

We’ve seen numerous articles and opinion pieces about the seemingly impossible choice colleges and universities have confronted because of the pandemic: to open and risk the health of students, faculty, and staff (not to mention the local folk living in college towns) or to solely provide remote learning opportunities and face financial ruin. It’s been predicted that as many as 300 colleges will close because of this pandemic.

Until recently, I was one of the thousands of higher education senior leaders making such an impossible choice and planning for the results. Yet I don’t buy the false dichotomy currently being presented. The economic hardships that higher education institutions are now grappling with have been a long time coming. And the primary reason may surprise you: we didn’t listen to our students enough, especially our student activists. This was a political battle, and we chose to remain politically neutral as educators.

Policy makers and critics have demonized and financially gutted higher education for decades. Too many Americans now believe that a college education is unnecessary. Too many believe that colleges and universities are places that indoctrinate students with liberal and progressive values. And as educators, we simply haven’t done enough to push back on that -- politically, intellectually and morally. We need to appreciate that we as educators serve on the front lines of our nation. We should consider ourselves defenders of democracy. U.S. president James Garfield asserted in 1880, “Next in importance to freedom and justice is popular education, without which neither freedom nor justice can be permanently maintained.” The easiest way to destroy a democracy is to kill access to a quality education. In our complicity, we have let that happen.

Want to know why higher education costs are out of control in the Unites States? Because as a nation, we have failed our citizens in terms of health care, living wages and criminal justice. The reason our colleges and universities spend more on our student support services than higher education institutions in other developed countries is because student affairs departments are required to provide medical and mental health care, social work services, food pantries, rape and domestic violence investigators and supports, and a whole host of other things. A huge portion of student affairs budgets are devoted to filling gaps in services that federal and state systems should be providing.

Colleges have psychiatrists and psychologists on staff to handle the suicidality, addiction, recovery and other mental health issues plaguing our young adult populations. They offer food pantries for the more than 30 percent of undergraduate and graduate students who are food insecure on most campuses. They’ve established entire case management positions and offices, staffed with social workers, to help students acquire the emergency services they may need at any given moment -- services to help with housing insecurity, natural disasters, hospital bills, utilities. The list goes on.

It is about time we listen to the students. They shouldn’t be the ones leading these protests -- for better wages, for better health care, for a better criminal justice system and for protections for our natural resources. We, the educators, should be at the vanguard. The students are right about climate change -- we should all be divesting from fossil fuels. The students are right about sexual assault, racial injustice and police brutality -- we should be pushing for police and justice reform. Many of the costs of higher education can be cut if we push for the national policies that our youth desire: Medicare for all, a living wage, police and prison reform, and the Green New Deal.

If we truly seek to reinvent higher education and make it affordable, we also need a paradigm shift: college and university leaders need to unite rather than compete. We, as a collective, are the education system. As a collective, we can push for increased funding, and we can provide our students and citizens with the supports they need to thrive. Only then are they able to focus on learning and building knowledge.

Look, it would be wonderful to reduce the need for student affairs offices and budgets. I welcome a future where colleges and universities can focus exclusively on teaching and research, as in the past. But that past was one that catered to financially secure families, and our nation’s income inequality has significantly worsened since.

If our goal is to educate the American public equitably and improve access to education, we need a nation that provides equitable services and incomes to its people. Until then, higher education will be tasked with all of it.

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