Higher ed is a tough world, but it’s a world we made

Roger Williams’ president says higher ed deserves much of the criticism it gets.

People often go to college for the wrong reasons, with assumptions about how it’s going to benefit them, says Donald Farish.

“When it doesn’t come out the way they imagined it would be, then, of course, it’s everybody else’s fault.” Farish, president of Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, will be the inaugural speaker at the new UBThrive program, part of UBTech in Orlando this June. An outspoken proponent of access and affordability, Farish says colleges—and students—need to be more realistic about what to expect.

“Increasingly, prospective college students are asking institutions how they are responding to the challenges facing young professionals who find themselves thrust into a stalled economy with prospects for employment not nearly as rosy as just a few years ago,” he notes. “While we can’t solve the country’s economic challenges, we can equip our graduates to succeed in spite of them.”

Your keynote presentation has this working title: “Why higher education is under attack and what we must do about it.”

Yes. When it comes to criticism, higher education tends to look for how we can make the smallest possible adjustments in our thinking to mollify our critics. I think that’s absolutely wrong in terms of how to respond. It’s a much bigger issue that requires us to rethink what we’re doing.

We’re in danger of waiting too long to respond and then having ourselves be overwhelmed with legislative mandates from Washington or from the states. Then we simply become training factories and give up on the idea that we have any role to play other than helping people get jobs. Everything has been reduced to the question of return on investment.

Shouldn’t you be able to demonstrate that your graduates land good jobs?

The problem is that looking at first-year salaries is a terrible predictor of lifetime earnings, especially with a liberal arts graduate. In the first year many of them are earning very little money, so it looks as if spending all that money on college was a terrible waste.

But 10 years out there’s a very different picture in place. You have to look at career earnings, or earnings at age 40—something other than just that first job. In the great majority of cases, they end up with a job they enjoy and a salary they find adequate for their needs, and earn about as much as graduates in professional programs.

To say it’s all about getting a job is throwing in the towel on all the things liberal arts have always aspired to. Many faculty in the liberal arts are horrified about the idea that we’ve been turned into a jobs training program.

You wrote, “Higher education has been its own worst enemy on this issue, having totally muddied public understanding regarding the actual cost of a college degree.”

I was referring to our pricing policy. There’s list price and net price.

The list price is what everybody can see because it’s there on the website. It’s the number that they keep beating us up over because it has been increasing for the last 20 years at rates much higher than inflation. People look at those numbers and say, “You’ve got to be kidding!”

The way we respond is to say, “No, no. You don’t understand. That list number has nothing to do with our actual numbers. Our actual number is dependent on a highly complex formulation, individually based, and we really can’t tell you what that number is until you apply.”

It’s going to be based partly on need, and partly on merit, and partly on what a different campus can afford to put into its financial aid budget, and partly on how much we redirect full payer’s money to partial payers.

It’s like the airline industry. Everyone pays a different price for their seat, and they’re convinced they’ve paid more than everyone else on the plane.

Right, and almost no one is a full payer anymore. Last year, nationally, almost 87 percent of the students in private schools paid something other than the full price. Once everybody is getting something other than full price, what’s the point of full price if no one is paying it?

But since there are so few full pays, we’ve had to raise the full price to drive any dollars at all back to the students who don’t have as much money. So people see the gross price going up, while what the campus sees is net revenue going down in many instances.

Where did it go wrong?

When colleges began giving merit awards is when they got in trouble. We need to pay attention to what the family has in its pocketbook. We had a recession in 2008 where families took a tremendous hit on their net worth, and many of them have not recovered to this day.

Higher education has raised its sticker prices substantially since 2008. At a time when the worth of individual families was going down, our prices were going up.

Yet people are still willing to pay the high prices.

That is what’s known as the Chivas Regal Syndrome, that somehow your sticker price is indicative of your relative worth, and the more you charge the better you are.

So we have this paradox: “I’m going to an expensive school. It wouldn’t be expensive unless it was good because otherwise no one would go there. But I also want a huge discount off that number so that I can go.”

That’s what a lot of colleges are trying to accomplish, but they end up battling with each other in a shrinking market. The number of high school graduates is going down, and it’s chaos.

I know several schools that woke up on May 1 and said, “Well, the good news is we got all the students we were looking for. The bad news is we blew the lid off the financial aid budget and now we are $9 million in the hole.” People lose their jobs when that happens.

Conversely, the danger is holding back on financial aid and hoping it all works out. Then it becomes, “The good news is we kept our discount rate under control. The bad news is we didn’t make our class. We’re still $9 million in the hole and we could lose our jobs for a different set of reasons.”

But that’s the world that presidents and especially admissions officers find themselves in today. It’s a tough world, but it’s a world we made.

Is there a way to turn it around?

Yes. That’s what we’re trying to do at Roger Williams. We did not wait until we got ourselves into a hole we had to dig our way out of, from the standpoint of enrollments.

We are seeing how long we can go without increasing tuition and without dropping our numbers. It’s tough, because the same number of schools is looking for the same number of students they’ve always had, and the pool itself is getting smaller.

How will you continue to get the number of students you need?

We start by putting ourselves on a path to where we become slightly more affordable every year to a slightly larger population, because we won’t increase our price. Meanwhile, as the economy improves and family incomes rise a bit, we’ll find ourselves on the right side of the action.

We’ll also lock in that price so that people don’t worry about bait and switch. We want to give you a very clear sense of what your financial obligations are going to be over those four years. Other colleges won’t.

What specifically adds value to a student’s education?

We need to link what your kids are studying to the world they are going to enter and make sure they are as well prepared for that world as they can be. And because we happen to have a robust program in the liberal arts coupled with a diverse program of professional majors, we are urging students to major in what they love and minor in something that is practical and supports that.

I was talking to a family whose daughter is graduating as a dance major—her first love. But she double majored in business because, if she doesn’t make it as a performer, that will help her open her own dance studio. She stays doing something that she loves.

We do the same things with engineers. We say, “You are going to get a good job out of college, but if you want to rise in the ranks and become management at some point, think about taking a minor in business or in one of the liberal arts so that you’ve got that balance.”

I don’t think there’s anything that we’re doing that many campuses in this country couldn’t do if they set their mind to it. But if they wait too long, until they’re already in a financial hole, then it becomes difficult. They’ll have lost any investment money that they might have had, because they spent every nickel they had just to keep themselves afloat.

Tim Goral is senior editor of UB.

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