Colleges' Public Trust

For decades, American higher education has been a gateway to upward mobility. Beginning with the G.I. Bill in the 1940s, then the expansion of state universities in the 1960s and '70s, we opened wide the classroom doors to middle- and low-income families. In the process, we helped create a dynamic, pluralistic society. But that dynamism is in danger. Today, only the wealthiest American families can consider college affordable without help. Tuition skyrocketed at twice the rate of inflation over the past decade, while federal support through loans and grants stagnated. Many states have been reaching into their pockets to compensate for federal declines, but that support is threatened by another economic downturn.

Plugging the gap between financial aid and college costs will keep getting harder, not easier. In fact, Merrill Lynch projects that in 20 years an Ivy League education will cost about a quarter-million dollars.

Where's all this money going? Why do college costs continue to roar ahead of inflation? College and university presidents who are never shy about asking for money - whether tuition increases, alumni donations, corporate gifts, or government grants - have been less eager to address these basic questions. Some have presented a smorgasbord of factors, like the need to bring faculty salaries to a competitive level and the expense of books, high-tech equipment, and other items in the college market basket.

Frankly, many of us in the academic community are uncomfortable admitting that the desire of parents to give their children a leg up in life, whatever the sacrifice required, has made raising tuition easier. Think of a degree from our prestigious institution as an investment that pays off in higher salaries and upward social mobility, we tell them. At a time when 12-year-olds eagerly shell out $160 for Reebok ``Pump'' sneakers, why is $80,000 for a college degree out of line?

Well, people are starting to wonder whether that price tag is out of line. Students at several universities, including the largest in my state, Rutgers, have taken over administration buildings to protest tuition increases. Meanwhile, the Justice Department is investigating 56 leading institutions on charges of price-fixing on tuition and scholarships.

When both college students and Justice Department lawyers ask the same questions about the price and value of higher education - and about the priorities of college administrators - we had better be concerned.

For instance, do sparkling new student centers and sports complexes further our educational mission, or are they merely marketing tools designed to wow prospective students?

Do the faculty ``stars'' we feature so prominently in our recruitment materials ever actually find their way into classrooms, or do they devote all their time to research and writing?

This question goes directly to the heart of the university: the relationship between teacher and student. The sad truth is, we have shoved the teacher-student relationship far down on our list of priorities, as we have lured prominent faculty to our campuses with the promise that their obligation to teach undergraduates would be minimal.

As a result, by 1989 tenured professors spent, on average, only eight hours a week teaching, a steep decline from previous decades, according to a Carnegie Foundation study. The teaching load of tenured faculty is lighter yet at our nation's elite institutions, most of which have no qualms in justifying lofty tuition costs, at least in part, on the basis of their prestigious faculties, even though the brunt of teaching undergraduates is borne by low-paid grad students.

This situation raises the serious question of whether today's undergraduates are getting their money's worth. Are they getting the product they thought they were paying for? It also raises troubling questions about current values in higher education.

College and university presidents, myself included, must rediscover that how well we do our job is not measured by the size of our endowment or the number of Nobel laureates on our faculty, but by the kind of society we help create. Something is very wrong in our colleges and universities when we regard creating an educated society as less important than building a stable of renowned senior fellows or garnering corporate grants.

We must remember that ours is a triple mandate: teaching, scholarship, and service. After all, the mission of higher education is preparing young people to take their place in the world as responsible, productive, and compassionate citizens. In a rapidly changing, increasingly complex world, this mission has never been more important.

The university must not be a safe haven from the problems beyond the campus gates. Rather, it must be engaged in the community and the world. We should welcome the challenges, and even the harshest questions, presented to us. And that means we must be willing not merely to assert that our students and our nation are getting a fair return on their investment in higher education - but to prove it.

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