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Higher education "On Notice?" It's time for some imagination by D. Weerts

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By David Weerts, Jandris Center Co-Director.
The other night I had the President Obama's State of the Union speech in the background as I got our kids ready for bed. The phrase that jumped out and took my attention away from putting pajamas on a two-year old was, "Let me put colleges and universities on notice. If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down." A very bold (some may say refreshing?) and aggressive statement I thought. President Obama's words referenced his points about higher education as an economic imperative, and that college and universities have an important role to play in the future of the country. In short, he argued that colleges and universities must do their part to keep college affordable rather than the government simply "subsidizing skyrocketing tuition."

So what should college and university leaders do with the President's warning?

It seems that the narratives about college costs are set in stone and may change little given the entrenched thinking about higher education among key stakeholders. The basic dilemma is what the former National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education called the "Iron Triangle" (National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 2008). In short, college leaders argue that reducing tuition (without increases in appropriations) will diminish quality and access. From this vantage point, legislators are the villains keeping higher education out of reach. But state officials disagree, providing new evidence about institutions that are making gains in cutting costs while improving learning.

On top of these challenges is the issue of demand elasticity. Flagship institutions like the University of Minnesota have enormous demand which makes tackling the cost issue more difficult. If nearly 40,000 applicants apply for 5,000 undergraduate seats, some would say, "Why not charge what the market will bear?" With prestige maximization being the goal for many institutions, being a "bargain college" is not at the top of the list for most college and university presidents.

So what can be done to influence institutional behavior?

It seems that what President Obama might have added is that higher education is in a crisis-- a "lack of imagination crisis." Had Henry Ford thought about transportation like college leaders think about higher education, he likely would have focused on creating faster horses rather than revolutionizing the transportation industry. Higher education could take a lesson from Ford. All higher education stakeholders--state leaders, presidents, faculty, and students--must first disrupt their current mental models about forms and structure of higher education. Instead, attention must be paid to envisioning preferred outcomes for the country (economic, civic etc.) and how higher education can become an instrument to achieving these outcomes. It is through this lens that innovative solutions about financing higher education may emerge.

Here at the Jandris Center we hope to create a community of "Henry Fords"-- an imaginative, dynamic community of problem solvers committed to designing a high quality, affordable, and accessible system of higher education for future generations. In the years to come, the focus of our work will be on challenging participants to think differently about long-standing higher education problems such as college affordability. The emphasis will be on building new prototypes that could be tested in policy and practice. There are plenty of challenges ahead and we hope you will join us in this endeavor. Stay tuned for more updates!

Suggested readings:
Archibald, R. B & Feldman, D., H, (2008). Explaining increases in higher education costs. Journal of Higher Education, 79, 3 268-295.
Ehrenberg, R. G., (2002). Tuition rising: Why college costs so much. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Mumper, M. (2001) The paradox of college prices: Five stories with no clear lesson, In Heller, D. E., (ed). The States and Public Higher Education Policy: Affordability, Access, and Accountability. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.
Winston, G. C., (1999). Subsidies, hierarchy, and peers: The awkward economics of higher education. Journal of Economic Perspectives. 13(1), 13-36.
The Iron Triangle: College presidents talk about costs, access, and quality. (2008) National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education: San Jose, CA http://www.highereducation.org/reports/iron_triangle/IronTriangle.pdf

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