Presidents, New York Times Journalists Debate Higher Ed Issues

​​Twenty-five presidents engaged in a wide-ranging and candid discussion with New York Times journalists at the 13th annual CIC/New York Times Partnership’s Presidents Council meeting at the Times office in New York City on October 11, 2016. This is the only such meeting of college and university presidents hosted by the Times. Ron Lieber, “Your Money” columnist, and Anemona Hartocollis, national correspondent, asked questions about college costs, student debt, tuition discounting, alumni outcomes and satisfaction, and cost drivers such as regulatory compliance, president/faculty salaries, technology, and the increasing need to provide mental health services.

Lieber said the goal of his personal finance column is to translate financial jargon, explain complex issues for readers, and, increasingly, answer such college-related questions as “How much money should I be willing to spend for a college education? How much is too much? How much debt should I take on?” He said the entire higher education system is “incredibly complicated and people can’t figure it out. That is why they try to negotiate better tuition discounts and why they become cynical.” He asked for data on saving and paying for college, and he asked for outcomes data that would help parents. Presidents in the meeting assured Lieber there is data available on these questions from many sources.

Bradley W. Bateman, president of Randolph College (VA), argued that families who don’t want to pay for their children’s college education “ought to know what it costs to provide a year of education for a student. It costs $30,000 to $40,000 per student.”

Hartocollis picked up on that point and asked what the big cost drivers are. “Is it presidential and faculty salaries?” The presidents collectively answered “no” and explained the various cost drivers. The reporters were surprised to learn that escalating mental health issues requiring the provision of more counseling services constitute a rising expenditure. “It has become a huge burden on institutions,” said Bryon Grigsby, president of Moravian College (PA), as has liability insurance, technology, regulatory compliance requirements, facilities maintenance, and more.

Thomas Minar, president of Franklin College (IN), emphasized that the media and the public “need to look at the broader question of value, not just the inputs. Higher education changes lives for the better. We need to create a social movement on the value of higher education, and we need help from the New York Times to educate the public.” He said that he, and most likely other presidents, would be willing to put their operating budgets “under a microscope” to show the public that there “is nothing left to cut.” Thomas Kazee, president of University of Evansville (IN), added that it is the Times’s​ job to inform the public about the vast array of colleges and universities in the United States. “Families need to know that it’s not a choice between just Amherst and Rutgers…. Students need to be aware of the colleges in between, and they need to know that these smaller colleges are high-quality institutions.” Others emphasized that net tuition at these colleges is not much above the cost of attending state institutions; that smaller private colleges produce proportionally more Fulbright scholars; that persistence and graduation rates are superior; and that CIC colleges “work hard to ensure that every student succeeds.”

At the close of the Presidents Council meeting, Bateman of Randolph College was elected 2017 chair of the Partnership, succeeding Gregory Woodward, president of Carthage College (WI).