A Scholarly Look at Higher Ed Prices

By John O. Harney

The American Scholar is one of the most thoughtfully edited magazines published today.

The journal has been published by the Phi Beta Kappa Society since 1932. Its title (which seems too hoity-toity for me to allow fellow train riders to see) was inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s speech, “The American Scholar,” delivered to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard nearly 100 year earlier.

In the Winter 2013 issue’s Sticker Shock, Margaret Foster reports on a poll asking college presidents at 7o campuses that host Phi Beta Kappa chapters whether their institutions can continue to attract students while tuition grows at its current rate.

Most of the presidents who answered said yes, noting that their institutions had been holding down tuition hikes. Many called for gearing student aid to financial need rather than merit and called on the states to boost funding for higher ed.

Among comments from New England presidents …

Carol Christ of Smith College answered yes and noted: “It’s impossible to reduce the rate of price increase in tuition without addressing the issue of cost control—which inevitably means reductions in staffing, since so much of our budget is devoted to personnel. Moving more business services to the web is probably the easiest initial step. Cutting the time of attendance—from four to 3.5 or even 2 to 3 years, using lower cost providers for some credits—is probably the easiest way to cut costs for individual families.”

John Neuhauser of Saint Michael’s College answered no and suggested: “Distribute only need-based financial aid.”

Perhaps the most provocative answer came from outside New England, from Joseph Urgo of St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He answered yes, adding: “The question is, who owns the problem? If it is a collective matter, a matter of national survival, then we have more than enough wealth as a nation to meet the challenge. If it is a personal matter, tied solely to personal gain, then the cost will become increasingly problematic. We don’t leave the military defense of the nation to private families; why should we leave the intellectual power of the nation’s citizens to individual financing?”


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