Safeguarding a Pathway to Opportunity

Xavier University of Louisiana President Reynold Verret shares his thoughts on the challenges, and potential solutions, to the rising cost of higher education.


As forecast by the Georgetown Center for Education and Workforce, more than 60 percent of jobs and careers in the United States in the coming decade will require a college education.  Yet, the cost of college education is becoming unaffordable to greater numbers of American families. Competitiveness on the national and global scale and capacity to attract industry depends heavily on the percentage of the workforce with college degrees. For our common good as a nation and society, we need these college-educated women and men and must find ways to make their education and development affordable.


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Tuition Increases Equaling Enrollment Drops

The average tuition of public colleges is now $9,970, a greater-than-threefold increase over the last 30 years. For private college, average tuition of $35,000 represents more than twice that of 1988. With the added cost of housing, food, books, clothing and transportation, is it surprising that many young people dismiss the possibility of college? Even after grants and discounts, the annual cost of college attendance, according to the U.S. Department of Education, exceeds the annual incomes of many American families.

As such, more parents and prospective students are eliminating college from consideration or forgoing enrolling in their top choices. Cost is a major cause of declining enrollment as tuition inches up each year while family income stagnates. Talent and genius have never been distributed according to socioeconomic status in any society, yet, for families at the bottom of the income scale, the cost of college is eliminating them from the market. As a result, society is deprived of its talented minds, as many never have the opportunity for college. Loss of this talent pool – much of it minority – weakens the country as it seeks to compete in the global marketplace and to remain a leader among the nations.

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Value Must Be Maintained

With so much attention paid to cost, value and quality of education — meaning degrees that create a real prospect of good jobs and satisfying careers — can often become secondary. Value must be balanced with affordability over the long run. Good education does cost, but the cost must be affordable to the many, not just to a few.

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Colleges and universities must invest in faculty, capable and committed to success of their students. They must pay for robust academic support, counseling, technology and other infrastructure in support of student learning and development. And, in spite of these costs, they must remain affordable. Indeed, schools that provide high-quality education at an affordable price and supports students toward degree completion and good jobs repay the cost of attendance many times over a student’s lifetime.

As a result of this struggle, many students are taking non-traditional paths through higher education. According to the U.S. Department of Education, nearly seven in 10 undergraduates are “nontraditional” students, meaning they delayed starting college, have a job or children, or are attending school part-time. Many students are working while in college, maybe juggling a full-time job and family. Higher education, accustomed to students in their late teens and early 20s, is now learning to adapt to and support more mature scholars.


What Can Be Done?

The solution to the affordability challenge will call for many approaches and many hands. A number of traditional approaches can be expanded, such as government forgiving student loans over an extended time span — especially in fields of special need — businesses providing competitive salaries and wages to recent graduates, and institutions pursuing philanthropic funding for scholarships to students in need.

There is a need for more imagination through innovative approaches by higher education leaders that can explore cooperation among institutions that offer greater learning opportunity and reduce cost and time-to-degree completion. Technology can allow students to take classes online at cooperating universities. The academic calendar can be revisited to facilitate students attending classes year-round and to expedite completion and entry into the workforce.   

Presently, the average time nationwide to earn a four-year bachelor’s degree is five-and-a-half years. With every extra year of college increasing the cost of attendance and indebtedness by roughly 25 percent, efforts must be made to lower the time-to-degree. One way to do this is with greater integration of colleges with secondary education — allowing students to earn college credit before graduating high school. This will serve to both better prepare students for their college courses and reduce failing grades and the need to repeat courses once they are enrolled. Other tools include credit by examination programs for skills acquired in the workplace.  


Final Thoughts

The affordability challenge is not solely the responsibility of higher education; it calls for engagement of educators, business leaders, government entities and grantors working together. We are mistaken to think that a college degree is a benefit only to the individual recipient. The entire society benefits when we engage and unleash the genius and talent in the minds of young and old.

Dr. Reynold Verret was unanimously elected Xavier University of Louisiana’s president by its board of trustees, taking office on July 1, 2016. Prior to his appointment as president, he served as provost and chief administrative officer at Savannah State, Georgia’s first public historically black university. Dr. Verret holds an undergraduate degree with honors from Columbia University, a doctorate in biochemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a postdoctoral fellowship at the Howard Hughes Institute for Immunology at Yale University and the Center for Cancer Research at MIT.


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