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Imagine if Honda’s board of directors were to admit that they thought the price of an Accord was too high when compared to the value of owning one. Or if Apple’s board were to say the value of owning an iPhone fell short of the price the company charged for the device. It may seem like an unlikely scenario, but it’s one that’s playing at our nation’s colleges: A recent survey indicates nearly three quarters of college trustees think that, compared to the value of degree, the price of college is too expensive.

It’s troubling when even those who ultimately set tuition agree that college affordability — or the lack thereof — has reached a breaking point. The survey of more than 1,400 trustees across the country, conducted by Gallup and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, found the price of college to be their top concern. More than 90 percent of trustees surveyed said they believe that the business model of higher education needs to change.

For such a change to happen, trustees must realize they have the power to make college more affordable. Here are five concrete ways they can begin doing just that. 

1. Just Say “No”

Trustees should not accept the conventional rationale that, when it comes to requests to approve tuition and fee increases, cost escalation is inevitable. Many trustees are successful in business — that’s partially why they were appointed. In their business lives, they would closely examine both sides of the ledger, weigh the risk of pricing themselves out of the market, and not merely assume their customers will absorb an increase in costs.

Yet, almost every board vote to increase tuition is unanimous. How can rate-setting — one of a board’s most important and consequential responsibilities — happen with almost no dissent? When institutional inertia leads to the foregone conclusion that tuition must be hiked, trustees should hit the pause button and begin asking probing questions. What is the purpose and use of the tuition revenue? Is the new hike fair to students? Is this the only way to effectively balance the budget?

2. How Can Technology Lower Costs

Trustees should take steps to learn how technology is being used in higher education. How can online and digital education be used to lower costs? It’s not about replacing teachers with digital algorithms, and it’s not even about simply making college cheaper. Online learning can widen access, helping more students of different means obtain an education wherever and whenever best fits with their busy lives. Enrolling more students increases tuition yield without raising rates, while also substantially reducing the need to construct and maintain new facilities.

On a smaller but still important level, open educational resources and digital textbooks can help many students struggling to keep up with the costs of college. It’s not uncommon for a student to spend more than $1,000 per year on print course materials. Many instructors and programs require specific texts that may not be available in cheaper digital formats. Trustees should evaluate these policies to ensure that students have access to digital textbooks and open educational resources whenever possible. 

3. Maximize Space Utilization

Rather than simply looking for more sources of revenue, board members should find opportunities to reduce cost through space utilization. Is another new building really needed? Could the institution have better aligned the schedule with existing spaces on campus? Airlines and hotel companies already know what many colleges do not: Wasted space is lost money.

According to a 2016 study by Ad Astra Information Systems, public university classrooms are in use less than half the time during a standard week. Yet, at the same time, 36 percent of all first-year courses were overloaded, meaning students couldn’t get the right courses at the right time, causing some to graduate late, or even worse, drop out.

4. Make the Budget Process Transparent

Before voting on or approving an institution’s budget, boards should seek input from as many stakeholders as possible. The board should not be acting solely on behalf of college presidents or faculty, but on behalf of students and taxpayers as well.

Trustees should talk to the student government, encourage community members to attend open board meetings, and use social media and the board’s official website to encourage a dialogue around the budget with those who will be most affected by it — and they should do so before a vote is taken. The board should also ensure that departmental budgets, including expenditures, are posted online for all to see.

5. Create a True Partnership with State Policymakers

When the stakes are so high, it can be easy to think of various factions involved in setting tuition as antagonists. Legislators and trustees often trade blame for tuition hikes without making any serious effort to solve the problem. Compromise — or, at the very least, debate in good faith — should be pursued around common goals of lowering costs while protecting quality. Trustees should be champions of their institution in the state capitol, acting as the lead advocate for the value and importance of higher education. At the same time, within institutions, they must be a force assuring that public funding is being used responsibly. 

While the idea that trustees and policymakers should work together might seem obvious, the truth is, in many states, such relationships are nearly nonexistent. The same poll by Gallup and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, found that just a quarter of trustees contacted an elected official about higher education policy issues in the last year.

This must change.

Pat Callan is a Board Member at Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust. He is the President of the Higher Education Policy Institute and formerly served as President of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, President of the California Higher Education Policy Center, and Executive Director of state higher education commissions in California, Washington, and Montana.

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