The value of independent colleges

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As outgoing co-chairs and co-founders of the Congressional Independent Colleges Caucus and as beneficiaries of world class educations from private, nonprofit institutions ourselves, we wanted to reflect on the great benefits these institutions provide their students and note, too, their irreplaceable contributions to the economic and cultural wealth of the United States.

Anyone concerned about the future of higher education understands the challenges the sector currently faces. The troubling statistic most frequently highlighted is the staggeringly high $1.5 trillion student loan debt currently held by borrowers. While this is partially due to rising college attendance, there is no denying the financial difficulties students encounter today, far greater than those our generation experienced. Private, nonprofit institutions will play an important role in any potential solution to this and other related problems, and so it is crucial that their specific needs and challenges are properly understood.

{mosads}We launched our caucus at the end of 2016 to ensure the hundreds of independent colleges and universities across America had their important work properly recognized within the halls of Congress. We are pleased that the caucus has grown since then, now with over 75 members, from both parties and both chambers. Collectively, we all recognize how vital the private, nonprofit higher education sector is to the American economy.

Part of the mission of our caucus has been to highlight the differences between the ways in which private, nonprofit institutions operate as compared to public colleges and universities or private, for-profit institutions. With over 70 percent of college graduates coming from schools other than private, nonprofits, we wanted to use our caucus to educate our colleagues and their staff who do not have our firsthand experience on what makes private, nonprofits unique.

For instance, one important piece of information that is frequently overlooked in higher education debates is that, while the sticker price of college continues to rise, the average, actual cost students pay at private, nonprofits was actually lower in the 2017-18 school year than it was a decade ago in the 2007-08 school year. According to College Board, in 2007-08 the average net tuition and fees a student paid was $15,270, whereas in 2017-18 that number was $14,530.

This has been possible because of a sustained commitment of private, nonprofits to keeping higher education affordable, particularly for disadvantaged students. They devote billions of dollars each year to institutional scholarships and grants. In 2015-16, the average student at a private, nonprofit received $19,173 in institutional aid, far outpacing what they received from either the federal government ($5,022) or state and local governments ($4,091). This level of commitment often goes under reported, when instead it should be acknowledged and celebrated.

While rising student debt levels are certainly concerning and need to be addressed, we are encouraged that private, nonprofits have consistently had the lowest borrower default rate of any type of U.S. institution. While the value of a college degree is well documented in terms of earning potential and career advancement, private, nonprofits do particularly well by this measure. Their students are more likely to receive graduate level degrees than their peers at other types of institutions and have the highest job satisfaction once they begin their careers. Also, contradictory to public perception, they serve a similar proportion of low-income students as public colleges and their graduates achieve higher rates of economic mobility. This speaks to the significant benefit students experience from private, nonprofit education.

Additionally, it is not just students who benefit from a robust private, nonprofit sector. These institutions also greatly benefit their host communities. We should know, as each of our two districts are home to more of these institutions than almost any other congressional district. These institutions provide their communities with high-quality jobs and are drivers of local economic development. 

Certainly, public colleges and other types of schools have important roles to play in the economy and the education of our students. They are invaluable contributors to academic and professional advancement. We are simply pointing out that private, nonprofit institutions have many important characteristics that should be recognized. 

As members of two different parties and as policymakers of different political persuasions, we do not agree on everything when it comes to the future of higher education in America. However, we both do believe in the importance of private, nonprofit colleges and universities and the great benefits they have brought our country through its entire existence. Any potential reauthorization of the Higher Education Act must be written taking the unique needs of this dynamic sector into account.

It has been an honor, as co-founders of the Congressional Independent Colleges Caucus and as representatives of our districts in the United States House of Representatives, to champion so many of these outstanding institutions.

Capuano and Goodlatte are co-founders of the Congressional Independent Colleges Caucus.

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