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Do Higher Costs Lead to Better College Educations?

June 15, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Does the mounting cost of college mean students are getting a better education? Ray Suarez moderates a debate sponsored by the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs about whether the costly higher education system is broken.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: the cost of higher education.

College tuition costs rise every year. But does that mean students are getting a better education? Or is the business model of higher ed broken and outdated?

Those were the questions for a Miller Center national debate in Washington, D.C., recently moderated by our own Ray Suarez.

Arguing that the business model of higher education is broken were Brit Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, and Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, New York. Arguing that the business model still works were Richard Levin, president of Yale University. His teammate was Daniel Hamburger, president of DeVry, Incorporated, a publicly held global provider of educational services, including DeVry University.

RAY SUAREZ: If the cost of college has gone up 439 percent in the last 25 years, is there any way we can measure whether you’re getting a much better education for that much greater amount of money you’re paying.

Rick Levin?

RICHARD LEVIN, President, Yale University: Starting in 1985, the rate of private return to higher education started to rise. And, in fact, economists have studied this carefully.

And what we have seen is that the actual amount of future income that a year of college education gets you is now higher than it was 25 years ago, despite the 400 percent increase in the cost. The rate of return is higher. So, for every dollar invested, even if it’s four times as many dollars, your — your lifetime income is going up by even more.

BRIT KIRWAN, chancellor, University System of Maryland: There’s no question that the — the value of an education at this point in time continues to justify the cost.

My concern is that, as we look into the coming decade, with the economy as it is, that the states in the public sector will not be able to make the investments to hold down tuition. And, so, what I think we are at risk of in the coming decade is a great ramp-up in the cost of public higher education if we continue with this current business model.

Consider that a child born into the lowest quartile of income has a one in 10 chance of ever getting a college degree. So, nine of those 10 will never get a college degree. Now, given the economic gain from a college degree, we are at risk in our nation of creating a permanent underclass, a permanent class of poverty, which belies our founding heritage of — you know, of an upwardly mobile society, a land of opportunity.

And, you know, this is not a problem that higher education can fix, but let me say this. If our nation doesn’t fix this problem, we’re not going to be an America we want to — that we would like to see in two decades.

RAY SUAREZ: Daniel Hamburger, you talked about access. Yes, it’s tough to get into the two or three dozen most demanding colleges in the country, but, in most states in the union, if you graduate high school, you can go to college somewhere in your state.

Is that really an access problem…

DANIEL HAMBURGER, president, DeVry, Inc.: Unless…

RAY SUAREZ: … we’re actually turning people out without a credential at the end of their education?

DANIEL HAMBURGER: You can go unless you want to be a nurse. And then you’re waiting on a wait list for two, three, four years.

So, we have got shortages in many — it’s incredible. Even though we have got 9.7 percent unemployment, we have got a whole bunch of jobs, categories, where we could cut the unemployment overnight if we had enough people educated to take those jobs, nursing, engineering. There’s many other examples. So, that’s where some of the issues are at that nuanced level of which program are we talking about.

GAIL MELLOW, president, LaGuardia Community College: And I think we really have to be serious about the crushing debt that students can come out of some of these programs with and what a public good is.

So, do you want a schoolteacher to come out with a debt like my niece has, who is teaching in a parochial school in Lexington, Kentucky? Can’t afford an apartment. She’s a great teacher. I want her in fourth grade.

But her debt from going to a public university is so overwhelming that she can’t live the kind of life that we want. I worry about the students who are at LaGuardia. It costs about $6,000 for them to get an associate’s degree, let’s say, in — in nursing. If it cost $42,000 or $68,000 at another college, is that worth it?

I do think we have to look at the kinds of public good we want and the kinds of costs we’re having our students bear.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To see the whole debate, please check your local public television station listings.