As a parent who spent her retirement and savings on my children’s higher education (no regrets), I was immediately ready to contribute when I heard about this challenge. However, my excitement lessened when I thought about retelling my story; I still become frustrated and angry when I think of my experience. How could I turn these feelings into something useful for others without simply complaining? I could reimagine the cost of college but could not imagine how to make a difference.
When I talk to young people about college costs, a debate about what they are really getting out of educational programs develops. What does higher education in the U.S. mean to potential candidates? Is it a large school with Division I championship-winning athletics, a small public college or an online program? Some of the feedback I’ve gotten or observed is that it’s not worth the effort if it’s not a prestigious or popular school. I’ve seen students give up because they couldn’t afford the big-school commercialized version of college. I believe higher education means continuing to learn and grow in an academic setting, through strong curricula taught by qualified educators. Even when a student doesn’t receive a diploma, higher education can make a profound difference in their lives.
As I ponder this challenge, I wonder if imagining the cost of how college is paid for starts with teaching potential students what higher education means. How do we re-market higher education at small institutions or programs that are not based on popularity but on quality, so we reach those that believe higher education pertains to only expensive programs? Of course, with this comes the measurement of a quality education. Is a subject taught by a highly respected instructor at a small public school equal to the same course taught at a private school with higher tuition? Perceptions can sometimes be changed quicker than deeply ingrained and established cost systems. How people feel about higher education can be researched and addressed while the cost structure is modified over time. Learning to value knowledge gained from a strong program and not a strong brand can help as we figure out ways to reduce college costs.
Could re-marketing higher education so people see the value in learning at affordable institutions or through online programs help influence the cost of high tuition fees at colleges? A new marketing approach for higher education would need to be done through advocacy that is not expensive. If students stop wanting to pay high tuition rates and found value in receiving their education from affordable programs, would it bring attention to the issue? Hiring managers and businesses would also need to change their perceptions. It would be an indirect way to address the cost of high education, but I wonder if it’s a start.