Emory Report

January 12, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 16

First Person

Keeping higher education
affordable will take effort

Amid the various issues and controversies that almost daily constitute the life of any university and any university president, one has gained such prominence that it merits description here. While one can ponder, in its almost medieval complexity, the relationship of a great university to the religious institution that was central to its founding, and while one can contemplate with some trepidation the ways in which the monumental expenses of modern medicine and health care threaten to obscure the other fundamental activities of a modern research university, there is one issue larger and more worrisome than either of these.

I speak of the possibility that higher education in this country might soon prove so expensive that its price will go beyond the reach of everyone save the wealthiest Americans.

In early June, the Commission on National Investment in Higher Education, a group made up of academic and business leaders, issued a report titled "Breaking the Social Contract: The Fiscal Crisis in Higher Education." The report says that if present trends continue, higher education will fall some $38 million short of what it will need to serve the student population that will want to go to college in the year 2015. If present spending growth were to be maintained, tuition would have to double by that year. The consequence would be devastating: half of those with college on their minds would simply not be able to attend.

Of course, such a report can be dismissed by optimists who put little credence in such dire predictions; "something will turn up," as they might say in their Mr. Micawber way. But those optimists would have to reckon with the fact that all of the analyses of higher education come up with pretty much the same picture, and that there are no analyses useful to optimists. Why the dire predictions?

The fundamental reason is that colleges and universities have gotten used to paying steep prices for the things they need and have also gotten used to certain inefficiencies that are integral to their identities. These habits have been ingrained in the culture of higher education.

Increases in what Emory, along with all its sister institutions, pays for goods and services (including faculty salaries), shot up more than sixfold from 1961 to 1995. And when one compares, as one naturally does, the rate of growth of providing higher education to its students to the Consumer Price Index, one finds that the former has exceeded (by a percentage point or more each year) the latter during the last 15 years.

On top of this damaging asymmetry is piled another fact: public support, by way of tax revenues and felt enthusiasm for what higher education is up to, has also waned. The report says that public support per student has barely kept pace with inflation since 1976; during the same period, the costs of educating a given student have grown by some 40 percent.

And any reader of the many books criticizing what their authors believe to be the foolish exoticisms, the wasted time, the poor teaching and the obsessive focus on useless research will know that such books have fallen on fertile soil in this country and have not been effectively answered by those (like me) who believe that what is right about the academy is more true of it than what is wrong with it.

But what to do? How can costs be lowered, inefficiencies reduced and public affection for what we aspire to do for the best young people in the country be recreated?

The commission makes some reasonable suggestions. One is to limit the power of individual academic departments, and this Emory is already proposing to do by way of stimulating and rewarding, at every step, cross-disciplinary research and teaching. Another is to share the resources of different institutions, particularly those in the same city or region, and this, again, we have begun effectively to do by way of our membership in the six-school consortium known as the Georgia Research Alliance. It directs valuable research funding, made available from the Georgia Legislature, to schools that work together in common research undertakings. And we have inaugurated some other important joint efforts with our strong neighbor, Georgia Tech, to explore what we can do more effectively, and more cheaply, by combining forces.

Higher education has long persisted in the happy, but expensive, belief that each institution can go it alone. That era will soon come to an end. And it has also thought that it could outrun the iron laws of costs, prices and consumer satisfaction. That too will have to end. And, by so saying, I am reporting to you what will form a central part of our future strategy at Emory. That strategy, now under intense discussion, will be the topic of one of my next reports to you. In the meantime, I urge you to send to me your suggestions about how Emory might ameliorate a situation second in importance to none.

This essay by President Bill Chace originally appeared in the Autumn 1997 edition of Emory Magazine and is used with permission.

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