It’s time for universities to think about students

Forbes Magazine is the latest US magazine to publish its own college rankings. As put of their 2008 colleges issue, they included an opinion piece by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the ranking member of the US Senate Finance Committee.

It’s well worth reading and I found this section to be useful advice for Canadian universities:

The question is how they’ll use their new wealth. Tuition increases have far outpaced inflation. Families are getting fed up and looking for colleges to examine their priorities and affordability.

Berea College in Kentucky is attracting attention for seeming to do it all. It accepts only low-income students who pay no tuition and earn their keep by building furniture and growing vegetables. The students have no hot tubs or rock climbing walls, yet seem happy with the quality of their education. Despite not charging tuition and a dearth of rich alumni, Berea has managed to build a $1.1 billion endowment.

How is this possible? Maybe a small college is forced to focus on its educational mission. It can’t offer degrees in every discipline, but it can offer very good degrees in a handful of disciplines. It might receive a very rare generous alumni gift, spend it wisely, and so engender support from generations of future alumni.

Tiny Faith Baptist Bible College in my home state of Iowa recently received a $7.5 million gift from a deceased farmer and his wife. That’s roughly the amount of the college’s yearly operating budget. The college is using most of the money for student aid and tuition freezes. If a 400-student college can do it, so can others. And doing a good job with a big gift will attract other gifts. The next Bill Gates or Meg Whitman might be among the current freshman class. They’ll remember an alma mater that spent carefully and helped them along.

Keep in mind that this is directed to private universities’ tuition, but the point about student support and focus is what’s important in the passage.