Research has shown that a lot of people get their news from faux news shows. So when comedian John Oliver went on a colorful rant about colleges and universities during his fake-news show, well I knew colleges and universities had taken a very real hit. Student debt is a real crisis in this country, though not as clear-cut as a comedy show might suggest.
The Student Debt Crisis: Myths and Truths
As an avid “Solutions at Work” reader, I’d already read Mark Ward’s thoughtful response to Mr. Oliver. As an administrator, I’d like to add my two cents and address a few debt myths from the college-president’s standpoint.
Myth: Colleges Don’t Care.
Truth: Colleges are Working Hard for the Students.
While a college president, I agonized over how to balance our budget and still provide students with an excellent education. It is an extraordinarily difficult task. Hardworking educators also expend enormous energy trying to help fill the gaps left by dwindling government aid. Leaders like Spelman College President Beverly Daniel Tatum talks about the vast amounts of time she and others use to raise money for scholarships. But the fact is, no matter how hard we try (and want to succeed), the amount of scholarship support is far surpassed by the financial needs of our students and their families.
Myth: Tuition Hikes Can Just Be Stopped.
Truth: Business Commitments Dictate Costs.
For-profit and not-for-profit colleges and universities are businesses that provide a service, in this case education. And both sectors have stakeholders expecting “profits” (in the form of positive balance sheets or surpluses) to answer to: shareholders at for-profit institutions and banks at non-profits. Investments made in infrastructure and buildings can be criticized as extravagant. But consumers demand amenities. And again, as businesses that must attract fee-paying customers — and institutions, both public and independent, are looking for the full-pay student — such investments are oftentimes necessary.
Myth: For-Profit Colleges are the Enemy.
Truth: Great Programs Can Be Found in the For-Profit and Non-Profit Sectors.
Higher education is a marketplace with both excellent and poor providers of higher education programs. This is true of not-for-profits and for-profits. Many people might be surprised to know that there are not-for-profit colleges out there operating as if they were for-profit businesses. Those are the ones to really be wary of.
Myth: There’s Nothing Anybody but Higher-Educators Can Do.
Truth: Business Leaders Can Help, Too.
Employers have great power here. More of them need to step up and provide financial investment for the continuing education of their workforce. The quid pro quo is the additional profitability a highly educated workforce can bring to a company. Those companies that are willing to make investments in the education of their employees — and many have — should not go it alone. I would encourage them to partner directly with colleges and universities willing to tailor programs to meet their needs, or to partner with a provider such as EdAssist who can help the meet the company’s educational needs as well as the employees’ educational aspirations.
And One Final Truth: We Have A Student Debt Crisis in This Country.
The student debt crisis is a $1 trillion problem, but the debt problem won’t be solved by discouraging Americans from seeking higher education. Instead we should be ensuring that our state governments and industry employers find ways to increase support to both the disadvantaged and working adults. Those previously-cited partnerships can assure that reforms and investments go to the goal of improving our economy and the bright future of our country.
Mr. Oliver is a comedian. And so his spin on this important subject is understandably played in part for laughs (student debt is a serious problem and for the millions of students and families struggling to repay their loans, it is no laughing matter).
But looking to the right places to solve these problems — that’s serious business.
Dr. Phil Conroy has served four institutions, both public and independent, during his 40-year career in higher education. He has served as a professor, financial aid officer, alumni and development director, vice president for institutional advancement, marketing and enrollment management, and college president.