Arne Duncan to Colleges: Bring Costs Down
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is calling on higher education institutions to “truly tackle the cost containment problem”—that is, to clamp down on ever-rising tuition fees and deal with rising student debt.
In a recent speech at the Federal Student Aid Conference, Duncan argued that the effort is in the best interest of both the government and students Duncan said that an expansion in federal aid and tax credits have brought the price paid by students down over the past several years even as net costs have increased. (In fact, Duncan claims that the federal government’s share of undergraduate aid has risen from one-third to one-half in just the past decade.)
But it’s not a sustainable system, especially with government spending on the chopping block. The good news about the government’s growing role in providing education funding, though, is that now students have a heavy hitter on their side in pushing universities to keep costs down.
In making the case for cost containment, Duncan dropped some pretty worrisome statistics: Three in four Americans said they think college is too expensive for the average person to afford. The average college student graduates with about $25,000 in debt. And, the cost of college tuition rose 48 percent at for-profit schools, 26 percent at community colleges and other public two-year schools, and 20 percent at public four-year schools between 1995 and 2007.
Duncan acknowledged the “iron triangle” that administrators grapple with—that is, schools’ desire to simultaneously improve quality, increase access, and constrain costs. But he challenged universities to examine spending on non-academic perks like gourmet dining halls, plush dorms, and swanky sports facilities that schools hope will drive up applications and boost their rankings.
Duncan also gave nods to a few schools, both public and private, that are innovating and making headway in providing affordable higher education, including the University of Oregon-Eugene, Western Governors University, and Carnegie Mellon. The University of Oregon, for example, recently launched a program called PathwayOregon that makes it possible for low-income students to attend college tuition-free, while Carnegie Mellon has advanced the quality of online instruction.
He also outlined the three main principles guiding the Obama administration’s thinking on higher education:
- Helping Americans manage existing student loan debt by capping monthly payments in accordance with income
- Making loan costs and requirements more transparent so students can evaluate their options before taking on debt
- Assessing whether colleges—particularly for-profit ones—are adequately preparing students for employment
Though none of these are particularly sweeping changes, Duncan framed his message as transformative rather than tweaking, declaring that the leaders in the field “are committed to sweeping innovation, not reforming isolated silos” and acknowledging that “fundamental change takes courage—and elbows everyone beyond their comfort zone.”
While Duncan didn’t mention the Occupy Wall Street movement by name, its influence was hard to miss—not only in the call for sweeping change, but in the focus on issues of debt and inequality that have become Occupy hallmarks.
Early in the speech, for example, Duncan declared that “this is a collective challenge, and a test of our commitment to the American ideal of education as the great equalizer.” While iterating a commitment to equality of opportunity is pretty standard in American politics, plenty of politicians who give equality of opportunity lip service don’t support policies that would attempt to make it more than rhetoric.
As Stanford professor Sean Reardon points out, though, educational inequality is on the rise, and social mobility on the decline. So it’s nice to see the Obama administration connecting the Occupy message about income inequality to arguments for access to higher education—even if they won’t come right out and say so.
Alyssa Battistoni is a staff writer for Campus Progress. You can follow her on Twitter at @alybatt.
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