A High-Impact, Low-Debt Christian University

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You don’t have to look far these days to find pretty depressing news about student debt.  A recent quote from a Fox Business article captures the heart of the problem:

“College has gotten significantly less affordable, especially over the past decade when tuition growth has continued unabated while income growth has stagnated and the job market has gotten much tougher for new grads.”

The fundamental problems here apply to both traditional residential colleges, and to adult learners in non-traditional, off-campus, and online programs.  But for the purposes of this essay I am focusing on the challenge for residential campuses that serve traditional-aged students.

Steep rises in cost and debt, coupled with a challenging job market, give rise to questions about the legitimacy of the idea that a college education is in fact a good investment in one’s future.

In this context, the findings of Sallie Mae’s sixth annual How America Pays for College are interesting. Here’s a summary.

Families still believe in the value of a college education.  “85% of families strongly agree that college is an investment in their child’s future, the highest in five years.”

Families still believe it should take about four years to earn a degree. “92% of families pursuing a bachelor’s degree believe it will take five years or less to earn a degree.”

iwuvsiuMost families don’t have a plan to pay for college and are paying less toward their students’ education.  “Six out of 10 families do not have a financial plan to pay for all years of college prior to the student enrolling. Parents have reduced the share they contribute toward college expenses to 27% (2013) from 37% (2010).”

Families rely on grants and scholarship more than ever before.  “More families (65%) use grants and scholarships to fund college costs than any other source of funding.”

More families are eliminating schools on the basis of cost and inability to live at home for at least a portion of college.  “Families have adjusted to a new post-recession reality by adopting a new cost consciousness when paying for college—including eliminating schools on the basis of cost and living at home.”

There’s a lot of hand-wringing about the relentless growth in cost of attendance and the attendant growth in student debt.  But it is hard to tell whether, as a whole, those of us who work in higher education understand that this is truly a crisis.

It is a crisis for students.  We are in danger of moving one of life’s greatest investments out of the reach of working class people who are unable to take on the level of debt that once was associated with a first mortgage.

It is a crisis for families.  We are in danger of removing from the reach of the so-called “ordinary” citizens of our counry one of the greatest pathways of family advancement that humanity has ever known.

It is a crisis for our society.  We are in danger of losing hope in the kind of learning that was once thought to be a foundation of the world’s democratic societies.

It is a crisis for our universities.  We are in danger of pricing ourselves out of reach of the very students we exist to serve.

Let’s not mince words.  If we do not act decisively and creatively to provide students with low-debt, or no-debt options for attending IWU, our future will be a difficult one.

We must apply our best creativity and will power to this challenge.

fountainResidential Campus CEO Keith Newman and his Cabinet have taken on the challenge of creating pathways that would allow IWU residential students who truly wish to do so to graduate with no more than about half the current average student debt.

We will not achieve this goal with gimmicks.  We dare not achieve this goal by watering down the quality or the missional nature of the education we offer.

The answer is not simply to increase our student aid.  In order to reduce the average debt of graduates from the residential campus to $10,000, we would need an additional $200,000,000 in scholarship endowments.  Though we are going to work hard to raise our scholarship endowments, we simply cannot grow our endowment fast enough to achieve this target.  More financial aid, by itself, is not the answer.

We must find creative ways to lower our cost of attendance, provide multiple ways for students to earn credit toward their degrees, counsel students earlier in their high school careers toward college credit pathways, provide greater ways to earn financial credit through work study programs, and provide better financial counseling to students and families.

Our ability to reach this goal will rest squarely on our willingness to find innovative solutions to this challenge.  Business as usual will not get us there.

Our vision is for IWU to become a truly great Christian university – great because of our service.  One of the greatest ways we will serve this generation is by ensuring that students can access the high value Christ-centered education we offer at a reasonable cost.  My dream is for IWU to become known as one of the world’s best high-impact, high-value, low-debt Christian universities.