This February, while lawmakers were still identifying priorities for the upcoming year, NACUBO released its 2019 Perceptions and Priorities, a public address on the current state of higher education and the challenges that lie ahead. Inspired by annual letters from leaders in their fields, such as Warren Buffett and Jamie Dimon, in the perceptions and priorities statement NACUBO digs into important industry-related issues without adopting the inside-baseball jargon that too often alienates a general audience.
To facilitate a richer dialogue, an expansive slide deck accompanies the statement, highlighting important themes in an accessible way. NACUBO hopes that this message cuts through the more harmful myths surrounding higher education and empowers college and university administrators to actively engage with their lawmakers, students, and the communities they serve.
In the Face of Fragmented Research
Each year, dozens of data sets and reports add to the growing body of research on higher education—with topics that touch on virtually every aspect of the sector, ranging from lifetime earnings by educational attainment to more esoteric subjects, such as the age profile distribution of campus facilities. These reports contribute to a robust but fractured understanding of how higher education works and its impact on students and their communities. Despite the wealth of information available, each new report and data set is disconnected from the rest, without consideration of where it fits within the larger body of research. When lawmakers and the media read these reports without context, they can develop shortsighted policies with unintended consequences, sometimes creating entirely new challenges that must later be addressed.
Given the breadth and scope of the available material, it’s understandable that policymakers and the public have struggled to gain a holistic view of the higher education ecosystem. Until now, no one had released a comprehensive survey of these disparate reports to tell the whole story. Recognizing this gap, NACUBO released its 2019 Perceptions and Priorities to provide a 30,000-foot view of the higher education landscape through the lens of college and university business officers, a perspective that is often missing from the national debate.
When designing its message, NACUBO identified three broad priorities to inform the conversation about the state of higher education and the challenges that lie ahead. First, equity and affordability must be demonstrated core values. Second, innovation and effectiveness should not throttle quality or do harm. Third, higher education must be regarded as an outstanding investment. With these guiding principles in mind, NACUBO drew on a host of different sources to take stock of the current research on higher education. The 2019 Perceptions and Priorities distills the literature into three, key, overarching observations, summarized below:
I. Household income is not keeping pace with the costs of higher education.
The data show what many Americans already know: College has gotten more expensive, leaving many students burdened with debts that weigh them down long after graduation. In part, rising tuition and fees stem from the steadily growing cost of delivery. But the most profound change in recent years has been the shift in who pays, not the net cost of a college degree. Public funding for higher education has declined steadily since the Great Recession, leaving students to make up the difference, particularly at public four-year universities. At the same time, research shows that wages have stagnated for all but the wealthiest Americans, meaning students are taking on a larger financial burden at a time when they can least afford it. Consequently, more and more students are taking on debt to obtain a college degree.
Despite this, a postsecondary education still yields dividends. Research shows that degree holders earn back the money they invested in higher education several times over by the end of their careers. However, the financial return on higher education comes with a major caveat: Students who take on debt without completing their course of study do not enjoy the same economic benefits as degree holders, but still bear the burden of paying back their loans. All of these factors, taken together, have a real and negative impact on equity and access, particularly for lower-income students. The higher education sector must find ways to deliver to the full spectrum of qualified individuals.
II. Providing a quality higher education requires significant investment.
Providing a higher education is expensive and the cost of delivering a quality postsecondary education has grown over time. The data bear this out. Contrary to public perception, instruction—the core mission of any institution—remains the largest single institutional expenditure across all institution types. Cost-saving strategies for instruction can only achieve so much. University professors already earn far less than other highly educated professionals. Similarly, studies show that institutional spending on student services has grown over the last 10 years, as schools increase investments in critical programs such as academic advising, career counseling, and mental health services. Despite the reality, for many, “student services” connotes wasteful spending.
In addition, reports indicate that institutional spending on financial aid has also been on the rise, particularly at private four-year institutions. These schools are overwhelmingly using endowment spending to support their students. Meanwhile, the annual NACUBO Tuition Discounting Study shows that tuition discounting has reached a record high—with nine of 10 freshmen receiving institutional aid of some kind at these types of schools. Schools are also making key investments in infrastructure, technology, and innovation. Lastly, research shows that regulatory burden also strains limited resources at institutions, in some cases forcing schools to comply with outdated or overly burdensome rules that do little to improve instruction or safeguard public funds. Together, these expenses add up, driving up costs and limiting the extent to which institutions can slim down their budgets while still delivering a quality education.
III. Higher education provides opportunity for upward mobility and a lifetime of value.
Research on the value of higher education is incredibly robust. Earnings data, employment data, and research on employer needs all confirm what most higher education professionals already know: A college degree is the best ticket into the middle class. Compared to workers with just a high school diploma, bachelor’s degree holders have lower unemployment rates and significantly higher incomes. Census data show that, on average, bachelor’s degree holders earn 74 percent more than their counterparts with just a high school diploma. Over a lifetime, that adds up. By some estimates, individuals with a bachelor’s degree earn $1 million more than those with a high school diploma. And individual graduates aren’t the only beneficiaries—their communities benefit too. Workers with a college diploma pay more in taxes, have higher levels of civic engagement, and enjoy better health outcomes than Americans with lower levels of educational attainment.
Beating the Drum
NACUBO’s 2019 Perceptions and Priorities carries a crucial message. To engage a broader audience, NACUBO posted its address on Medium, an ad-free social media platform with growing name recognition. This strategy has been successful in expanding readership beyond business officers, drawing traffic and attention from Medium’s broad, built-in audience. But a single publication is not enough to change the tide of the increasingly bleak national narrative surrounding higher education. Institutions and higher education professionals need to take up the mantle, using their expertise to answer questions in their communities about the cost and value of a postsecondary degree. After all, no one else is better suited to address the concerns surrounding higher education than the people who work tirelessly to deliver it.
In the wake of the recent admissions scandal, sudden university closures, and perennial reports of mounting student debt, policymakers and everyday Americans are once again questioning the merits of higher education. It’s a cyclical debate, one that most seasoned administrators and educators have heard before, and anxiety around the cost and value of higher education is seemingly boundless, rekindled with each incoming freshman class. This can make it easy for college and university administrators to tune out the conversation, dismissing the debate as a series of well-worn talking points that have already been resolved. Consequently, too often college administrators placate rather than seriously engage the public’s concerns. Today, more than ever, institutions cannot afford to let this conversation take shape without them.
While higher education professionals are secure in the knowledge that a postsecondary education is an unparalleled investment, for an increasing number of Americans, a college degree is becoming out of reach. This is a real concern, and to address it institutions will need to tackle tough problems around equity, affordability, and completion. The 2019 Perceptions and Priorities provides a road map for institutions and administrators on how to talk to policymakers, students, and each other about the realities facing higher education today and how to improve the system going forward. The accompanying slide deck provides easily digestible visual aids to facilitate these discussions.
Members can also take action by acquainting themselves with NACUBO’s Value of Higher Education project, which is available under the “Advocacy” section of the NACUBO website. Additionally, business officers can take steps to ensure that college public affairs professionals adequately understand the business office and promote its vital information the same way they share the stories of students, alumni, and university-based researchers.
For more than 50 years, in addition to providing business officers the tools they need to excel at their jobs, NACUBO has been a leading advocate for colleges and universities. Its 2019 Perceptions and Priorities statement and accompanying slide deck is a resource to empower NACUBO members to better advocate for themselves. Together, we can shape the evolving conversation about the value of higher education and develop innovative solutions that address student needs without compromising quality or inflicting harm.
NACUBO CONTACT Kat Masterson, policy analyst, 202.861.2544