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Higher education must rediscover the ‘service ethic’ of teaching

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Today the nation’s attention will shift to Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, as we host the next Democratic presidential primary debate. Questions will abound — of the candidates, between the candidates and, afterward, about who may or may not have “won” the night, all in the service of helping voters decide who might be best suited to lead. An important question that should be asked and won’t, however, isn’t for the candidates at all but for higher education: “Are you ready to lead?” Sadly, the answer is, “No.” 

Make no mistake, I fully expect plenty of discussion about higher education at the debate — its high costs, student debt, workforce shortages and the difficulty of change. I just hope the candidates don’t hold back in calling to account higher education itself simply because we happen to be their hosts. There is plenty of blame to go around with the challenges in higher education today, and higher education institutions themselves own a fair share of it. 

Perhaps no issue contributes more to higher education’s affordability problems than institutions’ — and parents’ — preoccupation with “prestige.” Exclusivity and selectivity are thought to be hallmarks of quality, which fosters a system that rewards institutions for perpetually raising admission standards and prices. The problem with this is that test scores — the most frequently-used metric for a student’s academic strength — generally track with a family’s income. Students from higher-wealth families have higher test scores and more frequently gain entrance to “selective” institutions, which steadily become less and less diverse. 

To essentially segregate students by their parents’ income this way, however, is un-American and does nothing to enrich an education or advance quality in research or instruction. It is the inevitable product, though, of a mindset that “selective” and high rankings are the top priorities in higher education. This is a falsehood that needs to be turned upside down.

What if, instead of prestige, advancing social good was higher education’s priority metric, and higher education administrators, parents and students alike understood its power in recruiting both top-notch professors and students? It’s achievable, and it happens by serving all deserving students through transparent financial aid, predictable costs and career-driven curricula. 

Few students pay the full list price of a four-year education because most colleges, public and private, spend a great deal of their own resources on financial aid. Still, that “sticker price” can be daunting to first-generation and low-income students, causing them to think college is out of reach. So, this pricing shell game actually can drive away deserving students. 

It would be better if institutions simplified the needlessly complicated financial aid system, priced tuition realistically and better targeted financial assistance. Diversity would increase, actual costs would be easily understood the first time, and institutions would bring in the same amount of tuition revenue.

Staying in school means continuing to be able to afford school. However, the average national tuition rates have increased eight times the rate of family income over the past 30 years, which means students and families experience big cost increases once they’re “hooked” at an institution. In fact, institutions count on it, but it’s yet another game colleges play — and it’s wrong. Good fiscal management can allow institutions to set tuition four years in advance, with reasonable growth rates, so families can plan. Several Ohio institutions, including Otterbein, have found ways to do this. It’s not rocket science.

After graduation, students and families focus next on the job market, justifiably expecting their four years’ worth of study and money to set them up to compete in the job market. Far too often, however, institutions’ programs are misaligned with employers’ needs, and institutions are to blame. Higher education must do more than just hope their programs teach in-demand skills and, instead, need to actually talk with employers about what they want from employees. Far too many in higher education believe this type of engagement is beneath them and that the ivory tower of academia is somehow diminished by contact with the real world of commerce. Higher education needs to get real. 

Otterbein doesn’t do all of this right, but we see ourselves and the challenge of equitable access with clear eyes, and work to improve by constantly reminding ourselves that higher education is about service — to all. Rediscovering the service ethic at the heart of teaching and research can allow higher education to once again play the role our country so badly needs  — the place that prepares the next generation of Americans to be the thinkers and leaders of a free society.

John Comerford is president of Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. Follow on Twitter @Otterbein.

Tags Higher education Student debt Student financial aid

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