From the triathlon to College of William and Mary President Taylor Reveley’s yule-time rendition of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” there are so many aspects of life at the College that make students’ college experiences both unique and wonderful. But with soaring tuition costs and an increasing number of alternatives to the traditional four-year degree, it’s hard not to wonder about the prudence of accumulating mounds of debt only to face likely underemployment upon graduation. Many practices that have become universal at universities across the country — including ours — make me sicker than a pledge during initiation.
Big changes in the college landscape have long felt inevitable. So, I had more than a passing interest to hear what President Obama had to say about the unsustainability of American higher education last week while visiting schools in upstate New York and Pennsylvania.
President Obama’s plan is twofold. The first part, which won’t require congressional approval, involves the creation of a new federal ratings guide. The ratings guide will provide parents and students with more information about schools. The ratings will take into consideration colleges’ value, with the purpose of incentivizing schools to control costs. Step two is passing a bill in Congress to link financial aid to the new ratings.
Overall, the plan seems sound. More information is always good. Plus, tuition costs nationwide are out of control; if a new ratings system could motivate schools to lower costs, I’m all for it.
If done correctly, federal incentives could encourage innovation and risk taking. In fact, the unregulated free market often incentivizes against real educational innovation in favor of established ways of siphoning money out of the hands of students and parents. For instance, the College requires both freshmen and sophomores to buy a full meal plan, which includes more meals than most students can eat.
The College’s meal policy is an example of how colleges and the higher education industry feel at liberty to charge students for unnecessary services. It’s the reason that textbook manufacturers regularly churn out new editions of textbooks that differ only slightly from the previous one. Colleges are in the business of making money, and because there is no viable alternative for students who want to earn a decent living, they are able to hike prices with little effect on demand.
Many have speculated that the traditional four-year degree at the school of your dreams will soon be a thing of the past for most students whose parents aren’t rich. And that’s not entirely a bad thing. For instance, given opportunities for online learning, there is no longer any reason that 200-student introductory lecture halls should exist.
Colleges that do not find ways to lower costs will lose out to the increasing number of educational alternatives and the schools that are working in tandem with technological advances. So, if a new college rating system and revamped criteria for financial aid can incentivize schools to become more affordable, I don’t think it’s hard to support the president’s plan — or at least his intention.
While I think that many aspects of higher education should be made more affordable and efficient, the possibility of a complete overhaul is sad. The more time we spend pajama-clad, taking classes on the internet, the less time we spend interacting with other students, being exposed to new points of view, and learning about ourselves. The College’s tour guides are being sincere when they show prospective students how beautiful our campus is and rave about how they were inspired by a given professor. That’s the stuff that makes college such a romantic concept for kids and such a nostalgic notion for adults; it’s just not worth the current price.