Columnist Jim Oldham: Time to rethink higher education

  • The flag flies on the Hampshire College campus in Amherst in December of 2016. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Monday, March 18, 2019

The recent news that Hampshire College won’t be accepting an incoming class in 2019, and is facing an uncertain future, was of particular interest to me.

Hampshire is where I got my degree. Also, as the father of an Amherst Regional High School senior, college is much on my mind these days. But one needn’t have a personal connection with Hampshire, or any college, to appreciate the problems with the current model of higher education in our country.

Here in the Five College area, these problems get to the core of our identity, and they call for rethinking that goes beyond the potential need for a new moniker.

Costs are central to this story. When I first set off to college 40 years ago, my total annual cost before grants and loans was $8,000, about half the U.S. median income, and shocking at the time. Now, the sticker price for a year at a private liberal arts college is close to the current U.S. annual median income of about $60,000.

This price inflation is true across higher education. A few years ago, Business Insider reported that the average annual cost of a college education grew 260 percent between 1980 and 2014 while the Consumer Price Index rose only 120 percent in the same period.

This is not sustainable, as the ever-growing student debt crisis and the recent spate of college closings demonstrate. Although admissions staff would be quick to tell you that these sticker prices are not the same as a family’s cost, you’d be hard put to find a low- or middle-income family with a child in college who isn’t struggling to figure out how they can make the finances work.

I can’t help thinking this must be a significant contributing factor to the current American economic miracle: 40 percent of the population of the world’s largest economy doesn’t have financial reserves to cover a $400 emergency and, as we saw this winter, even people with middle-class incomes need to head to the food bank if a single paycheck is missed.

Though cheaper than private colleges, the cost to attend public institutions has risen just as dramatically. Tuition and fees for in-state students at the University of Massachusetts totaled just over $2,000 in 1980; this year they will reach $16,000. Add in room, board and miscellaneous expenses and the yearly cost approaches $30,000.

Nationwide, the cost of publicly funded universities has risen particularly sharply since the Great Recession. In Massachusetts, according to the Center on Budget Policies and Priorities, state funding per student dropped 16 percent between 2008 and 2016, contributing to a 29 percent increase in average tuition at the Commonwealth’s public four-year colleges.

Cuts in public funding are particularly harmful because state colleges and universities do a better job than private colleges in helping students from poorer backgrounds improve their economic situation, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. Unfortunately, as tuition has risen, the number of low-income students attending those public institutions with a record of facilitating “income mobility” has declined.

Meanwhile, in the competition for students, every school now seems to need excellent dining options, fitness centers, and a net-zero energy building. The one place administrators seem willing to cut costs is by hiring increasing numbers of adjunct professors who do the same work as tenured professors for less pay and without security or benefits. This abusive practice deserves a column of its own, but can’t be omitted in a catalogue of higher education’s systemic problems.

Colleges’ aggressive competition for students has also, paradoxically, made the selection process more competitive and stressful for applicants. For example, the growing numbers of students accepted “early decision” by institutions desperate to lock in the required numbers for their incoming class, reduces the number than can be accepted from the larger pool of general applicants.

In response, to protect themselves, more students apply early decision and/or apply to more colleges. A feedback loop is created in which more total applications are submitted, colleges get to claim greater selectivity in an attempt to appear more desirable, and more students experience stress and rejection.

As Hampshire College students and faculty try to slow down the self-defeating process the school’s administration has embarked on, and redirect thinking toward remaking the college, their ability to turn their fortunes around will depend, I expect, on not just reimagining the college, but on contributing to reimagining the entire industry in ways that address its many contradictions.

That would be an endeavor worthy of all our support.

Jim Oldham is executive director of Equity Trust Inc., an Amherst-based nonprofit that works nationally for land reform and economic justice. He attended Hampshire College from 1991 through 1993.