Saving Public Higher Education: High Tuition, High Aid and High Value

Remarks to the Community Development Round Table
Washington Athletic Club
January 24, 2011

George S. Bridges
President
Whitman College
Walla Walla, Washington

Thank you for your very generous introduction and for inviting me today to speak about our state's system of public higher education.  I am honoured by the invitation and welcome your reactions to my remarks.

As Mary McWilliams indicated, I have devoted much of my career to serving in colleges and universities and to studying and understanding the forces that shape social institutions. And while you might expect that given my current position that my remarks will laud Whitman College, doing so is not my primary intention. You might also expect that given my background in public education I would argue that our state must direct more funding to our public universities and colleges. Doing so, however, is also not my intention. Finally, you might expect me to extend to each of you the Presidential handshake which I learned Lee Huntsman and seek a gift for Whitman College.  Doing so is also not my intention today. 

I will begin with my observations about the current state of higher education in our state, having now served at public and private institutions, and explain in the most logical terms I can muster, why I believe that Washington must find a new way to adequately support the undergraduate and graduate programs at our public universities. That way is to move aggressively toward the private institution model, one of high tuition and high financial aid for those students who can't afford to pay full cost.

At the heart of my argument are five critical points:

1) Our flagship universities and regional institutions rest at a tipping point of an irreversible shift away from providing the majority of undergraduates with educational experiences that provide the skills they will need for positions of leadership in their professions, communities, and in the state.

2) The model of funding public higher education in our state is broken. Washington State subsidizes the college education of students at our public universities in the amount of thousands of dollars per year per student.

Over the past two decades this level of state support has dropped significantly. That our state government subsidizes the education of thousands of young men and women even as we face a fiscal crisis in state government is immensely problematic. I believe that many families can afford to pay more than the current level of tuition and should do so and that tuition at our flagship universities should be no less than twice what it is now. It costs a great deal to educate a student, —far more than the cost of Washington tuition. Tripling or quadrupling it would be come closer to the mark of real cost.

3) In order to ensure that poor and middle-income families can afford and have access to our universities and the education it offers, tuition levels should be significantly discounted (Discount) for students whose families or personal circumstances preclude them from paying the full cost of tuition and other fees associated with attending the universities in the state.

4) Any and all state funding of higher education should be [a] directed to students, not to institutions, with each student receiving a commitment of funding from the state to support attending a college or university in Washington.  And [b] that state directed funds must clearly and directly support the undergraduate and graduate teaching missions. The only exception to this rule should be state funding of capital projects (Funding to students). Further, In order to ensure that we maximize the use of all of the educational resources in our state, students should be allowed to take this funding to any institution of their choice in Washington State, public or private. 

5) Institutions that receive state-supported funding to educate Washington students must be held accountable for reporting how funds are used to support instruction, access and retention in college (Accountability). 

Let me repeat these ideas -- public higher education is at an irreversible tipping point in support for it's educational mission, the current model of funding state subsidies broken, tuition should reflect the actual cost of educating students effectively, higher financial aid should accompany higher tuition, funding should be directed to students not necessarily institutions and the institutions, public or private should be held accountable for reporting use of any state funds to ensure that they are directed

to supporting student instruction.

As someone who is the product of public higher education, an admirer of the profound and consequential research and teaching undertaken in our universities, and as a fierce advocate for preserving student access to our public institutions, these recommendations may seem utterly heretical. But here's my rationale, and I'll share with you how it developed by describing my own personal journey through higher education, from my days as a student, a member of university faculty and a dean, and finally, a college president.

When I attended the University of Washington now 40 years ago, I had the unusual good fortune of being taken aside by two professors who accepted my pleadings to work with them on their research.  As one of a very few undergraduate students in the social sciences at the time who experienced this unique privilege, I had an education that inspired a career.

My interest in and excitement about the faculty's work took me to graduate school, then to work for the federal government and finally into an academic career that brought me back to my alma mater as a faculty member and later as a dean. I never thought I would leave UW -- I fully expected to pursue my research interests and work with exceptional graduate students, while teaching undergraduate courses of my choosing, for the rest of my career.

Nearly 20 years after joining the university and well into an established practice of teaching and research, I faced a turning point in my personal and professional priorities. A larger vision of the university inspired me, one in which launching initiatives that would improve the academic experiences of students took precedence over publishing yet more articles and books.  Put simply, I became enthralled by the process of changing and advancing the learning of students within the University of Washington.

Among the more memorable moments at this personal turning point, when I was serving as Dean of Undergraduate Education, was a campus conversation sparked by comments from Regent Bill Gates about whether the education UW was offering undergraduates was “rigorous.” Bill asked a simple question: Were students being adequately challenged academically? Were they working hard? At a campus-wide forum and in conversations with Bill at the time I argued forcefully that the education we offered many university students proved very demanding. 

But given what I am about to tell you regarding my transition to Whitman, I will now argue that for most undergraduates our flagship universities are not nearly as rigorous or demanding as they should or can be. This is not the fault of our universities, their faculty members, administrators, or regents. And it is no criticism of my alma mater.  That many classes are huge and that most professors in the liberal arts and sciences rarely get to know and work closely with students until they are seniors  -- is a matter of money and a campus culture that has shifted as state funding for undergraduates has deteriorated and federal funding for research has grown.

Shortly after that forum and our conversations about the about the rigor of undergraduate education, I was approached about the presidency of Whitman.  At the time, I knew it only as a small liberal arts college on Washington State's eastern front. What I have discovered, however, is a school that offers every one of its students the experience I had had in my last years as a student at UW. But Whitman and most small private colleges offer it from the moment that students walk on campus.  I discovered a school that is defined by one mission and only one mission – excellence in undergraduate education in the liberal arts.  And I discovered a school that is not distracted from this mission by virtue of its reliance on Olympia's unpredictable and declining support.

As the search progressed, I encountered Whitman students and alumni and soon learned that this was a place where undergraduates thrived, where the interaction with faculty was close and mutually beneficial, and where writing and speaking were integral parts of every course.  And I came to learn that at small colleges like Whitman, the alumni are among the most loyal I have ever encountered. They are loyal, to a great extent, because of the quality and depth of intellectual relationships they formed with faculty and peers during their four years on campus.

Over the past five years, I have learned that students experience the types of challenges and rigor that you and I would seek for every college student. Classes are small, term papers are written and re-written after faculty members comment on drafts, students are expected to engage in class dialogues interacting actively with professors and other students, readings are debated and discussed late into the night in our residence halls, and no student graduates without successfully completing a comprehensive written examination or thesis and an oral examination by his or her faculty. Our library is the busiest place on campus most weeknights until late into the evening  -- it is open 24 hours a day 7 days a week at the insistence of the students. Finally, there is a spirit of collaboration among the campus community that sustains student success and produces the highest graduation rates of any school in the NW and among the very highest in the country.

There is no question that some of these assets are attributable to the small size of our campus and its relative rural isolation. Whitman is idyllic. I am not suggesting that our research institutions should be transformed into small liberal arts colleges! Yet this predictable excellence in college education -- —the intensive, high quality instruction from first-year foundational courses and advanced seminars, generation after generation can exist only because the funding model is radically different from that of our public institutions. Tuition is set at $38,000 per year and is subsidized with endowment funds.  With 1,500 students, about 20% pay the full amount while others receive some level of assistance based either on their academic achievement, their economic need or both. Tuition funds and our endowment are used to subsidize the tuition payments of those who cannot afford to pay the full amount. In effect, we return about 38 cents on each dollar of tuition revenue in the form of financial aid depending upon the year. But if there is one statistic I would ask you to remember about this model is that students who leave with debt, on average leave with a level of debt than differs very little from the average level of debt carried by UW or WSU students.

The subtitle of my remarks today is: “High Tuition, High Aid and High Value.”  And the value proposition is perhaps the most powerful attribute of the high tuition high aid model I describe. To the State, there would be direct restoration of funding needed to support undergraduate and graduate education without additional state funding. Classes would be smaller, contact between faculty members and students would increase, and the quality of the learning experience for students has the potential of being significantly enhanced. Further, significant savings to the state would accrue if state subsidies were reserved for solely for those with financial need.

We have two great public research universities in our state, 3 regional universities, and one public liberal arts college. All are in a critical struggle for resources that won't appear anytime soon. Can we afford further erosion of support for the undergraduate missions of these schools? No, absolutely not.  But the tragedy unfolding before us is reversible.

Funding for public higher education must shift to the same high tuition, high aid model that some public universities like Michigan and most private colleges like Williams, Amherst, Pomona, Whitman, Seattle University, University of Puget Sound, and the other private colleges and universities across the country and in Washington State employ to provide a far more rigorous and personal education than most students receive at our public universities at far less cost to the state.

Let me put the matter in different terms. The 10 private colleges and universities in Washington graduate 25% of all baccalaureate students in the state.  Using the high tuition high aid model and receiving no state subsidy for our students, we save the state of Washington $330MM per year by educating thousands of Washingtonians without any state subsidy. Imagine the savings to Washington if the other 75% of degree recipients were supported using the same model.   In all likelihood it would be well over a $1B. Even if half of these funds were to go to public university student aid and direct support for teaching, it would leave much-needed support for other educational projects, such as ensuring that K-12 students receive the education they need to be truly prepared for college. Everyone in this state with a long-term interest in improving the education, intellectual aptitude, and job preparedness of our state's residents could likely get behind that goal.

Let me end my remarks with this question. What do we seek for the education our children, our grandchildren and our children's grandchildren? They represent the future leaders of our businesses, our state and our country. My answer is as follows. For every college student, I seek a setting in which the interplay between instructor, students, and ideas always has the potential for magic, the serendipitous discovery of knowledge, old and new. I seek for them college professors, areas of study and ideas that spontaneously ignite to form a crackling fire of inspiration that moves them to pursue new knowledge on their own.  But the fire requires sustaining fuel that we have a moral and strategic obligation to provide.

Thank you.