Editorial: Here’s one way to make college affordable
In communities all across the country last week, President Obama’s speech on college affordability no doubt left university administrators feeling squeamish and defensive.
Not in Manchester.
That’s because the president singled out Southern New Hampshire University as a place that’s actually doing things right. And as national leaders in higher education, politics and philanthropy work to rein in the cost of higher education, SNHU is, indeed, worth a close look.
Obama said he wanted to create a broad new government rating system that would judge colleges on their affordability. Such a system would help students and parents select schools and, ultimately, it could even be used to allocate federal financial aid.
“Colleges are not going to just be able to keep on increasing tuition year after year and passing it on to students,” the president said. “We can’t price the middle class and everybody working to get into the middle class out of college.”
This is of particular concern in New Hampshire, where college students graduate with some of the highest debt loads in the country, and tuition at the state university is unusually high.
Some push-back was inevitable. Some higher education experts and some Republican politicians said they were uncomfortable with the federal government imposing new standards on the private sector. Some university officials argued that tuition costs are affected in part by factors out of their control: state government funding decisions, for instance, and the rising cost of health care. And there’s little doubt that members of Congress would protest a system that would lead to cuts to financial aid to schools in their own districts.
Nonetheless, the speech was an important start to an overdue national debate and underscored two main points: The high cost of college tuition is jeopardizing the future of individual students and, in turn, the economy. And colleges seem unable to control this phenomenon on their own.
How can colleges make themselves more affordable? Obama had particular praise for SNHU’s College for America. That’s a program in which students get credit for how well they master the material, rather than making sure that they spend a certain number of hours in class. Students who work quickly can finish faster –which means they pay less.
“I think the main reason our degree program is so popular is that it represents – really for the first time – higher ed fully focused on learning and unconcerned with time. It makes a huge difference to working students and employers,’’ noted Paul LeBlanc, founder of College for America and the president of SNHU, where it is housed.
SNHU has also experimented with a “Degree in Three” program, which allows students to earn a business degree in three years, without attending summer school, and saving nearly 25 percent in tuition.
And the university’s “College Unbound” program emphasizes project-based, real-world learning instead of classroom time. It’s aimed at making students “career-ready” when they graduate.
SNHU’s programs aren’t for every student and surely not ideal for every discipline. But when the cost of traditional education methods are out of reach for many families and the prospect of decent employment is slim without a college degree, they must be part of the mix.
It’s encouraging that Obama wants to make access to college an administration priority. As he said last week, “We’re going to have to do things differently.”