Albany Times Union Commentary: College affordablity can be easy as ABC

Susan Scrimshaw, President, The Sage Colleges

The American dream of providing a college education to everyone who wants it and is academically qualified is a noble pursuit. President Barack Obama's suggestion in his State of the Union address that colleges and universities have to do their part to achieve this dream by "working to keep costs down" is inarguable.

But his challenge: "Higher education can't be a luxury — it is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford" will be met only if we recognize and address the A,B,C's of post-secondary education in the 21st century:

Affordability This currently en-vogue phrase cannot become synonymous with universal accessibility without renegotiating a partnership that has frayed over time and threatens to unravel in the face of increasing economic pressures and societal demands.

Affordability has recently been translated into the concept that college should be accessible to all, regardless of ability to pay. But someone must. The key to making higher education affordable varies with the type of institution, but one common step lies in forging partnerships among colleges and universities, government, private philanthropy and consumers.

Public institutions were founded with the premise of affordable education for all. The notion of a state-supported university has become virtually an oxymoron, as public institutions now receive less than 20 percent of their funding from state subsidies.

The large research universities in particular are now less accessible to low-income students than are small private colleges, and these universities are educating proportionately more middle- and upper-class students. In New York, the private nonprofit institutions educate a higher percentage of low-income students than do the public universities.

Basic business Selling something for less than it costs to produce is the first step to economic extinction. We leaders in academe need to do everything in our power to keep costs down, even as we manage inflation and growing expectations for financial aid and amenities. But government and the public need to accept the responsibility to support higher education and student aid in order to increase access. An increase in such financial assistance by colleges is a decrease in revenue. Neither the public universities nor the privates can afford to provide education for less than it costs to produce.

We must find not only new revenue to meet rising costs, but ways to decrease the cost of a college education. The Sage Colleges has undergone a sometimes painful process of cost containment. We have consolidated academic programs, merged administrative offices, removed reductions in teaching loads and reduced faculty stipends, and eliminated some low-enrolled academic programs entirely. At the same time, we have frozen tuition for the past three years, increased financial aid provided by the college by 12 percent, and provided a pathway to achieve a bachelor's degree in just three years. While they have been successful at Sage, these initiatives will not work for all colleges and universities.

Complexity. The needs of institutions and the students they serve are too diverse to ignore the complex amalgam that is higher education. Speaking in one breath of UAlbany, Hudson Valley Community College and Sage does a disservice to those institutions and to the American public. Just as our constituencies differ, so do the recipes for a sustainable prosperity.

For the large, research-intensive universities, Congress needs to remember the multiplication of the value of research dollars to society and the value of remaining on the cutting edge of innovation. At the same time, the commitment to provide basic education at an affordable price must be maintained at our community colleges.

For the private colleges, the need for partnerships forged with the business and philanthropic sectors of society has never been greater. Affordability can only be achieved with the generous assistance of these sectors.

Obama has articulated what many know: the old model isn't working. To make a new model for higher education work is a collective responsibility. It is time we took that to heart and agreed: Affordability is everyone's job.

Susan Scrimshaw is president of The Sages Colleges.

This is from her Times Union blog. Read more: