At White House Meeting on Affordability, a Call for Urgency, Innovation, and Leadership

December 05, 2011

[Updated: 8:50 p.m.]

The take-away message from President Obama's private meeting with higher-education leaders on Monday was threefold: There needs to be a new sense of urgency on college affordability, there won't be a one-size-fits-all solution as policies will have to affect all sectors of higher education, and the country needs innovations and cost-management from colleges and leadership from state legislatures.

That's according to Thomas J. Snyder, president of Ivy Tech Community College, who participated in the meeting. President Obama and Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, are now in what Mr. Snyder described as listening mode, "but I suspect some pretty substantial proposals will evolve in the next few months," he said.

President Obama "certainly gave us the impression that we have to continue our efforts on completion and that the attainment gap is going to take some rethinking of the cost equation," he said. "Improving completion with the existing enrollment is not going to close the gap, we're going to have to get more students and get more students to complete—a good portion of them are going to have to be nontraditional students, those already in the work force."

At the meeting, the tone felt open and Mr. Obama was engaging and knowledgeable about the issues surrounding affordability and productivity in student attainment, said F. King Alexander, president of California State University at Long Beach. "I would say they're in the process of formulating some proposals that would certainly have an impact on higher education and force higher education to think creatively about their ability to help students succeed and control college costs," Mr. Alexander said.

He said some participants from public colleges discussed ramping up productivity in student attainment. "You had three of the largest systems represented there," namely the University of Texas, the State University of New York, and California State University, Mr. Alexander said. "If we're truly going to positively impact graduation rates, big states like California, Texas, New York, and Florida need to be on board and making progress just because of the sheer volume of the student populations in those states."

'Very Encouraging'

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, said the meeting was "very encouraging."

"There was a general understanding that we can't have business as usual, that we have fewer resources," Mr. Hrabowski said. "The question was how do we build quality while cutting costs." In the discussion, Mr. Hrabowski said many students at his college were able to pay for education with internships and research jobs that assist faculty members. He also talked about the need for better cross-agency collaboration on increasing the participation of minority students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields.

The university leaders were sensitive to the fact that there wasn't a lot of new money they could put on the table, said William E. (Brit) Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. But they suggested there were ways of restructuring the federal financial-aid programs to encourage more state spending on need-based student aid and on the use of technology in teaching and learning strategies.

Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity, and Accountability, said the meeting consisted of college presidents who have done things to increase achievement, reduce costs, or both. The Obama administration was looking for ways to take successful efforts and make them "more strategic and more systemic and have more of an impact because we're not where we want to be on college tuition."

According to a statement from the White House, President Obama discussed the need for bold solutions to "help more Americans attain a higher education at an affordable price."

For-Profit, Left Out

For-profit colleges seemed to feel snubbed by the White House after they were left off the invite list for the private meeting.

"It is surprising that private-sector institutions were not invited to attend in spite of the fact that more than three million students attend our schools, which represents about 12 percent of all of higher education," said Brian Moran, interim president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, a lobbying group for the for-profit sector, in a written statement.

Leaders of an array of higher-education institutions attended, from nonprofit private universities like Carnegie Mellon to public systems like the University of Texas and the University of Maryland. Other guests included nontraditional institutions like Berea College, Western Governors University, and Ivy Tech Community College.

But not one for-profit educator made President Obama's guest list.

Mr. Moran said in the statement that, during this past year, public four-year universities, public two-year institutions, and private nonprofit colleges had increased tuition and fees more than for-profits have done. To have a more robust conversation about college affordability for students, including student veterans, low-income students, and minority students, "private-sector colleges and universities need to be part of the discussion," he said.

He said the association hoped "to meet with the White House in the near future to add an important perspective to this critical discussion."

Kelly Field contributed to this article.