Balancing the Costs and Needs
of a College Education

Fall is near, and our campuses are filled with students as the semester began Monday, August 26. Just a few days earlier, Faculty Development Day was held, and we spoke of our ethical and moral obligation to provide a high quality education for our learners. I cited a new book by Jeffrey Selingo, Editor-at-Large for the Chronicle of Higher Education, one that addresses the increased financial burden we are placing on our students. In his book, College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students, he wrote:

Overall, student debt has surpassed trillion dollars while, since the late 1970s, the annual costs at four-year colleges have risen three times faster than the rate of inflation. Some $110 billion in student loans were borrowed in 2011 alone. Some 50 million Americans now hold some kind of student loan, slightly more than the number of people on Medicare and almost as many as receive Social Security benefits. (xiv)

Watching new students move in, we cannot help but wonder if we are doing everything possible to support their need for programs that will give them the very best return on the investment. The national and state discussions about colleges and universities focus on student debt, and the overall accountability required of our institutions. Just the day before I met with faculty, President Obama came out with his own plan for higher education. The White House released a Fact Sheet on the President’s Plan to Make College More Affordable: A Better Bargain for the Middle Class. The release states:

His plan will measure college performance through a new rating [system] so students and families have the information to select schools that provide the best value. And after this ratings system is well established, Congress can tie federal student aid to college performance so that students maximize their federal aid at institutions providing the best value. The President’s plan will also take down barriers that stand in the way of competition and innovation, particularly in the use of new technology, and shine a light on the most cutting-edge college practices for providing high value at low costs. And to help student borrowers struggling with their existing debt, the President is committed to ensuring that all borrowers who need it can have access to the Pay As You Earn plan that caps loan payments at 10 percent of income and is directing the Department of Education to ramp up its efforts to reach out to students struggling with their loans to make sure they know and understand all their repayment options.

A reliable poll recently rated us as high in return on investment (ROI) to learners, but we do not know how the President’s plan will unfold. However, we do have every motivation to do the right thing by our learners.  Take “Randy” as an example.

Randy is a new student with whom I spoke on opening weekend. He is an articulate young man from an urban area who came to us after trying out another college. The reason he chose Rio was a specific major (Welding) that has a high probability of employment with good pay. He is very goal-directed, and was encouraged when I spoke of the quality of his faculty and career opportunities. His eyes lit up when I told him the faculty and students helped design a railroad in West Virginia. If he stays here for two years, he will easily be able to pay back any student loans he may owe. If he remains for the baccalaureate in a related field, he should also do well, but even with our very competitive cost – he will have many years of loans. I really enjoyed the time I spent talking with Randy; I also felt a very strong sense of duty to assure he gets a good return on investment.

Scholarships help; they are the lifeblood for avoiding increased student debt. Thousands of learners benefit from the generous contributions to those funds. For the many alumni who benefitted from scholarships, I encourage you to try to help this new generation of students. We will also do our part to keep down the costs, while providing the advantages of a full residential campus and faculty with excellent credentials, beginning in the very first class.

Yes, this is a very exciting time on campus – vibrant with new students, returning upperclassmen and women, refreshed and engaged faculty and a committed administration. I’m going to keep an eye on Randy and his classmates; they are our future, and we owe them a very rigorous and accountable education. It’s wonderful seeing the students back on campus, and thank you to all the generous alumni who support them and those who came back to move them into the dorms. Let their memories begin.

Barbara Gellman-Danley, Ph.D.