Those of us in higher education celebrate the New Year in August. Today, on the eve of Winthrop’s convocation ceremony that heralds the academic New Year, I encourage my colleagues to renew our resolution to ensure that the education we deliver is valuable for our students and our society.
In recent weeks, I’ve been asked frequently to comment on the cost of higher education. Of course, I try to turn that conversation into a discussion about the value of higher education, rather than the cost. But, before I make the cost-value flip, I take advantage of the opportunity to explain that there is a direct, inverse relationship between the cost of tuition and fees at public colleges within a state and the funding that state provides to its public colleges and universities.
Consider this: Data from the U.S. Department of Education reveal that South Carolina has the 7th highest average annual tuition and fees for public higher education and ranks 48th in percentage of institutional revenue provided by state funding. In contrast, Florida has the lowest average tuition costs and the 8th highest percentage of college revenue that comes from state budgets.
The inverse relationship between state funding and tuition cost is clear, and likely causal.
But, ironically, it also is hard to understand. After all, the connection between higher education and work force development seems crystal clear as well.
Why would states champion economic development goals and fail to see how investing in work force development (i.e. higher education) propels progress toward those goals?
Our state legislators aren’t living on the D.C. beltway. They are our neighbors and friends. So, this quandary is enough to make me think that maybe those of us in higher education could do a better job connecting our academic programs to the outcomes that are valued by legislators.
Among other things, state legislators tend to value academic programs that produce well-rounded citizens and fill economic need, individuals who are self-sufficient, services that help those that are struggling, citizens who are responsive to local concerns, and organizations that run efficiently and deliver on their promises. Most people I know in higher education share these values (although some of us might order them differently).
To me, this means that the disconnect may be less about mismatched value orientations and more about our collective failure to effectively connect higher education to achieving desired impacts for individuals and communities.
As Robert Frost implied in his poem “Revelation,” sometimes we do have to “speak the literal to inspire the understanding of a friend.”
Do I want our legislature to restore funding to higher education? You bet I do — because I know that increased funding will allow us to curb tuition increases and make a college education more affordable.
But, I think the best way to accomplish that goal is quell our cry for blanket restoration of dollars and instead lobby for support of programs and initiatives that produce impact.
It’s New Year’s Eve. And, I think we should resolve to state our case in the form of value propositions with clearly delineated outcomes and measurable impact.
Perhaps this will give our neighbors and friends the rationale they need to stand with (or against) their legislative colleagues in support of our efforts to decrease college costs and increase degree attainment.
Jayne Marie Comstock is president of Winthrop University.