This week my colleague Rachel and I are in Vegas. Not on vacation, but at the US Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid Conference. Yes, you read correctly. Vegas. Definitely an interesting place to talk about the billions of dollars of financial aid bankrolled by the federal government—and one which lends itself to an endless supply of puns, many of which we will now use with reckless abandon.
It was a full house at the Grand Marquis Ballroom of the Las Vegas MGM Grand hotel, as 7,700+ wheelers and dealers gathered for the main event, to hear Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speak. “Eye of the Tiger” was playing and the crowd was pumped (well, we were pumped). Given the environment, we were hoping that the Secretary would magically appear on the stage in a burst of flames. Alas, this was not to be. Our hopes and dreams were not all in vain however, because he did deliver a significant speech on reining in college costs, the wild card of higher education.
While much attention has been focused on student debt, much less has been paid to the seemingly intractable issue of increasing college costs. Duncan argues that there are few incentives in higher education to contain costs and increase productivity. Instead, institutions are often incentivized to compete with one another in the higher education arms race to offer nonacademic perks, such as the ubiquitous rock climbing wall.
In front of an audience of predominantly financial aid administrators who see the real impact of escalating costs on students on a daily basis, Duncan’s comments were warmly received. If this speech had been given in front of 7,700 Provosts or Presidents or the folks at One Dupont, knives might have been thrown. As if to anticipate the cries of “it can’t be done” and the reactionary use of the “iron triangle” as a shield, Duncan cited multiple examples of states and institutions that have, in fact, lowered costs while maintaining or increasing quality. His list included the usual suspects, like those using NCAT’s course redesign, as well as lesser-known institutions, like West Virginia’s University of Charleston, which is planning tuition cuts of 22% for freshman and transfer students.
We left feeling hopeful, not just because “Don’t Stop Believing” was playing in the background (seriously), but because the Secretary of Education is putting the pressure on all stakeholders to rein in costs. It’s a promising first step—and we challenge the Secretary to take this message to the powerful, yet resistant, state and institutional decision makers who were not at this conference. Otherwise what happened in Vegas will, unfortunately, stay in Vegas.
Co-written with Education Sector policy analyst Rachel Fishman.