Woodbury University: How to combat rising university costs in an era of greater accountability

Recently, President Barack Obama outlined a plan to combat rising college costs by holding colleges and universities more accountable for results. The foundation of this plan is a ratings system that would provide students and families with information to help them select a school that offers the best value. Ultimately, Congress may tie the provision of federal student aid to a college’s rankings.

What might the proposal mean for colleges and universities and the businesses that hire their graduates?

Smart Business spoke with Luis Ma. R. Calingo, Ph.D., president of Woodbury University, about the challenges of making college more affordable.

Will this proposal help colleges do a better job of turning out graduates who are prepared, for example, for a career in business?

The ultimate impact of the president’s proposal is difficult to gauge. However, the debate must begin with understanding the role of higher education.

Colleges and universities exist for one reason: to produce graduates with highly valued degrees who have the knowledge and the character to serve and lead. President Obama’s proposal enjoins colleges and universities to return to basics.

Doesn’t it make sense to focus curriculum on courses that are most essential to a student’s future career?

While that makes sense at the graduate level, there are benefits to a broader undergraduate liberal arts education, which is when students ought to be exploring their interests.

Businesspeople often say they can’t understand why any undergraduate student would pursue a history major or take a philosophy course. But the students who study history or philosophy are those who end up in law school, just as those who pursue biology may end up in medical school. These are the courses that enrich the mind so that students become better business executives by being more critical in their thinking and more socially responsible. All of those things come from a liberal arts education, which is why many professional degree programs have a strong foundation in liberal education.

On a personal note, my daughter is majoring in theology and minoring in Arabic in preparation for a career in law and foreign service. She’s a prime example of why it’s important to debunk the myth that a liberal arts education does not contribute to preparation for a business or other professional career. The dichotomy between liberal education and professional preparation is an artificial one.

What can be done to reduce the spiraling costs of a college education?  

How people respond to the cost question depends on their perspective.

If you are a parent or student who relies on federal Pell and/or state grants, any move that reduces public funding for higher education is of great concern. It also depends on where you live. A state university education in Ohio costs two or three times what it costs in California.

At Woodbury, what we do and what we spend is related to producing quality graduates. As with most universities, we spend 70 to 80 percent of our budget on personnel. We consistently apply a student-to-faculty ratio to determine new faculty hires. Any inflationary increases are generally tied to the Consumer Price Index. That’s how we establish the bulk of our budget.

In fact, Woodbury is doing a business process improvement study of our student services and business processes to improve our operational efficiency. Other colleges, large or small, should do the same.

Of course, universities like Woodbury could reduce the numbers and kinds of courses offered to focus on those required for majors. That, however, would be counter to the argument that business and other professionals benefit from a grounding in liberal education.

Luis Ma. R. Calingo, Ph.D. is president of Woodbury University. Reach him at (818) 252-5101 or [email protected].

For more of Calingo’s perspective on the challenges facing colleges and universities today, visit his blog, Pursuing Excellence in Higher Education, which debuts in October.

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Additional blogs and articles with Luis Ma. R. Calingo:

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