Chairwoman, Chancellor Brogan, governors, presidents. It’s very nice to see the new student governors here today.
I’ve recently been travelling around to the universities to speak with the faculty. I was impressed a few days ago, not necessarily in a good way, by a couple of faculty members who, referring to the State System, asked, “What the heck is going on? Just what is happening?” It seems like we are truly in the midst of an identity crises about who we are, what our purpose is, and what we are trying to ultimately achieve.
We’ve heard a lot of talk about whether universities will succeed or fail, but that really poses the wrong question entirely because universities are not businesses. If our universities don’t succeed, ultimately we fail the Commonwealth and all of its citizens.
My understanding of who we are is that we are supposed to be those institutions that provide opportunities for working-class families to achieve the American dream.
Yet we continue to hear talk about closing universities and programs, and we are experiencing skyrocketing costs, not just in the terms of tuition, but also when it comes to fees and room and board. One has to start to wonder if we are in fact becoming so unaffordable that we are no longer serving our mission.
Some of the data that we’ve seen to come out of the State System about the average income of families that are attending our universities suggests that we are increasingly serving those in the upper middle and even the upper class. There is nothing wrong with providing an affordable education to all, but it would still seem that our fundamental mission is to help working-class people who otherwise could not afford to go to college.
It’s not a shock at all that the universities that are currently in the most trouble are those that are struggling. Everyone on the board, certainly those people who were here back in 2011 and 2012, should know about the McGuire Study commissioned by the State System. That study looked at tuition elasticity and what would be the impact of increasing tuition on enrollment at our universities. It found that six of our schools would be in jeopardy if costs went up above $3,000 a year. But yet the costs have gone up over $3,000 a year; we shouldn’t be shocked that five of those six universities are in distress.
We also know from that study that students came to our universities primarily because of academic programs, academic quality, and the cost. Yet, what we have seen over these last few years is cost increases, academic programs pulled back, and other academic cuts.
Now no doubt we are in this position because our state allocation was decreased, and it has not kept pace. That creates tremendous problems, but we also have to look at whether we are creating self-inflicted wounds. Are we really concerned with that price sensitivity, and what we are doing to prospective students and families that otherwise wouldn’t be able to come to our universities?
When we talk about closing some universities and those universities that were the most price sensitive, we are discussing those universities that were in the poorest regions or serving students from poorer areas of the Commonwealth. No doubt we know there have been demographic changes that impact enrollment, but did we exacerbate that problem by enacting policies without asking every single time there’s a new project and every time there is a new fee increase, “What will be the impact on the students we serve?” We must constantly remind ourselves of the answers to the fundamental questions of who we are, what our mission is, and who we are meant to serve?