Find the true value of higher education

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The recent survey of compensation for college presidents was met with a resounding thud. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last month that for the first time ever a college president - in fact, five of them - earned more than $1 million in a single year. That news is renewing questions about soaring college costs. It should also spark discussions about the willingness and ability of our colleges and universities to assess the quality of their teaching and the satisfaction and success of their graduates.

Educators have certainly been talking about treating students and parents as "customers" for many years. However, few colleges are actually exhibiting the introspection and discipline needed to assess customer satisfaction and success through the eyes of students, parents, and employers.

Focusing exclusively on cost is understandable. Cost issues are in our face when a tuition bill arrives at home or the school needs to purchase new technology to remain competitive. Indeed, the College Board reports that tuition and fees rose 51 percent at public four-year colleges and 36 percent at private institutions over the past decade.

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Yet in a culture obsessed with short-term, sound-bite thinking, we owe it to ourselves as students and administrators to introduce lifetime success and satisfaction into the cost equation. The sad fact remains that too few institutions are engaged in long-term self-assessment and too few students, parents, and employers are demanding it.

There are measures that we as students and administrators can use to assess value. For example, merit is sacrificed when undergraduate students get lost in overcrowded classes taught by young teaching assistants instead of professors who sometimes prefer research "opportunities" over teaching "loads." Value is delivered when class size is kept small and great professors make teaching their highest priority. Value is realized when colleges create incentives that encourage professors to stay in the classroom instead of disappearing into academic research.

Instead of hand-wringing, let's use the findings on presidential compensation to trigger a national debate on the cost and quality of higher education as well as the success and satisfaction of its consumers. It's time to stop ducking the tough questions about value and start assessing whether and how students and parents are getting their money's worth. Only then can we assess whether a college president is adding excellence consistent with his or her pay.

Daniel S. Cheever Jr. is president of Simmons College. Sarah L. Curran is a senior.

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