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Academic Leaders Debate Whether U.S. Higher Education Is Broken

WASHINGTON – In a televised debate on Tuesday, two public university leaders, arguing that the current business model for higher education financing is broken, disagreed sharply with two leaders of private institutions who contended that market forces have done their part to ensure viable educational options for American students and their families.  

The four higher education leaders, including University of Maryland System Chancellor William E. Kirwan, participated in the second debate of a higher education series sponsored by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, PBS, and the Lumina Foundation. The debate was held live before a studio audience at the National Press Club in Washington. The Miller Center aired the debate live on its web site; the event will appear on PBS stations across the country later this spring.

In a white paper explaining the debate’s resolution that the “business model of higher education is broken,” Dr. David W. Breneman wrote that, two decades ago, tuition in public higher education was low because state governments provided the bulk of operating support for state colleges and universities but that, in the 1980s, state shares of university budgets began to decline. State support for public higher education institutions have continued to decline, leading to what the resolution defined as broken. Breneman is the Newton and Rita Meyers Professor in Economics of Education at the University of Virginia.

Supporting the resolution, Kirwan, a veteran leader of public universities in Ohio and Maryland, said public universities and colleges across the country are turning away students by the thousands because they do not have the state funding to support the enrollments. “States will not be able to make the investments, and we are looking at a great ramp-up of tuition,” he said.

Dr. Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College in Long Island, N.Y., agreed. “The disinvestment in higher education has been going on for the last 15 years. We need a higher education model that creates greater funding equity from two- to four-year colleges,” she said. Taking a swipe at for-profit colleges that enroll students who have been awarded federal Pell grants, Mellow added, “We need a business model that does not create profit for shareholders.”

In addition to colleges turning away students, Kirwan and Mellow said that potential students are being priced out of a college education and that, for those who enroll, there are not enough resources designed to help students complete their education.

“We are having too many young people start the process but not complete a degree,” Kirwan said.

Taking the opposing view, Daniel Hamburger, president and chief executive of DeVry Inc., argued that the current options students have to attend a public, private, or for-profit college make the education market “diverse and democratic.” Since 1975, nine out of 10 DeVry graduates have been employed in their field within six months of graduation, Hamburger added.

Dr. Richard C. Levin, president of Yale University and Yale’s Frederick William Beinecke professor of economics, said that a college education is an investment and that consumers will tolerate increases in tuition rates because a college degree yields the financial benefit of greater earnings over the graduate’s lifetime.

Kirwan and Mellow argued that Levin and Hamburger do not recognize the big picture problem in higher education because the schools they represent are niche players in the education market, while public two- and four-year schools educate more than 80 percent of America’s student body.

“The for-profit colleges are educating the easiest to be educated—they don’t educate the wide band of folks that we need—the innovators and the creators,” Mellow said.

If the model of funding higher education remains the same, “we are going to go from having the highest to the lowest percentage of higher educated people in the industrial world,” Kirwan said.

One suggestion for holding down costs the experts discussed involved developing more three-year degree programs. DeVry’s Hamburger touted the success of its nine-semester degree program that allows students to take a full class load during the summer semester.

Kirwan said this is something that the University of Maryland may look into. “I think three-year degrees have enormous potential; there is a way of introducing some huge cost savings,” Kirwan said. “We can get a significant number of students to a degree in a shorter time.”

However, Mellow argued that educators must approach this idea with caution. “A three-year degree is great for some folks, but we have an enormous swath of students who need lots and lots of education. If all we are looking at is cutting costs, I think we are cutting it short in the wrong ways.”

Both teams agreed that increasing technology in classrooms to help students retain what they learn and to maximize the reach of a professor, aligning high school curricula to better prepare students for college, and improving preparation for college professors are important to maintaining higher education in the U.S.

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