March 14, 2011

A Broken System

Print More

In the wake of the Board of Trustees meeting last week, changes are sure to come to Cornell. Whether they will be alterations to the Greek system, a new initiative on mental health or simply the implementation of Cornell’s strategic plan remains uncertain. It seems rather appropriate, though, that change should come at this time. Over the past month we have witnessed millions across the globe demand reform to systems that simply aren’t working. And with that in mind, I can’t help but think that we at Cornell —  indeed, we the larger undergraduate community in this country — are blind to an opportunity for reform in our own backyard.

American higher education is in crisis. As the country reels from the recession, private undergraduate tuition continues to increase at an annual rate 2-3 percent greater than the rate of inflation. In fact, the price of private college tuition now amounts to roughly 55-60 percent of the median family income in this country. Financial pressures on universities — particularly public universities — are poised to become increasingly acute as state and federal allocations continue to dwindle. At some point, something at these universities will have to give; instead of wondering whether it will be financial aid, research or tuition, why don’t students take a stand?

Tuition hikes and administrative streamlining — while helpful — are band-aids, not solutions, to what is actually a systemic problem. The problem starts with the rankings system. It’s no secret that universities seek to achieve the highest possible ranking. What may come as surprise, though, is that the ranking system explicitly rewards those universities that spend more than others. Ten percent of a university’s U.S. News and World Report ranking is based on its “Financial Resources,” or “average spending per student on instruction, research, student services and related educational expenditures.” Even where rankings do not explicitly emphasize increased spending, they implicitly demand them by considering research, facilities and faculty prestige. Simply put, the ranking system rewards increased spending, even if its ability to identify the quality of an institution is highly questionable. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in a recent piece in the New Yorker (“The Order of Things, Feb 14, 2011): “There’s no direct way to measure the quality of an institution — how well a college manages to inform, inspire and challenge its students. So the U.S. News algorithm relies instead on proxies for quality — and the proxies for educational quality turn out to be flimsy at best.”

In addition to — or perhaps because of —  a ranking system that encourages spending, universities find themselves in a situation in which the price of tuition doesn’t even begin to cover the cost that the university incurs for each student who matriculates. The current system is simply unsustainable. We need new ways to cut costs without adversely affecting the aims of the university, its rankings and its students. And we need the student body to voice its concern over the increasing costs of its education.

We need to reform the ranking systems by publicly calling on U.S. News and World Report to revise its ranking criteria so as not to require increased spending to avoid declining in rank. Imagine if instead of a metric measuring “Financial Resources,” the U.S. News and World Report included a metric measuring affordability. Such a step would exert downward pressure on university tuition and force institutions to find new ways to reduce costs.

Universities should also actively seek ways to utilize new technologies to minimize costs and increase revenues. Just a few weeks ago, New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman proposed to cut $100 million from the state court budget by implementing an e-filing system. In a similar vein, technology has the potential to save our universities — and, therefore, their students — substantial sums. Online learning programs like “eCornell” have and can continue to help generate additional revenue, while collaborating on distance learning initiatives with other universities may also reduce costs.

Reform and cost reduction opportunities exist. No doubt, it will take a convergence of leadership in higher education in this country to decide, collectively, that their institutions are on unsustainable paths. But Cornell can recognize that the system is broken and be a leader in the field of higher education, as it has been so many times in the past. As Cornell endeavors to become widely recognized as a top-ten research university in the coming years, it should also undertake efforts toward reducing the costs of an undergraduate education in its pursuit of providing instruction to any person in any study.

Nathaniel Rosen is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at nar55@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Nathaniel Rosen