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Are colleges only serving their own needs? Why COVID may bring reform

A rower passes by the Harvard Boat House. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Newsmakers)

With rising costs at college, many have been talking about what is broken and how it should be fixed, especially as this pandemic is tearing across our country. Dr. Todd Rose is co-founder of the think tank Populace, and the former director of the Mind, Brain and Education program at Harvard. He joined the Gee and Ursula Show to discuss why drastic reforms are needed.

“The issues with higher (education) right now are not COVID-related. These issues of cost, access, and opportunity were there for years and years,” Rose said.

What COVID has done is inadvertently give families a little more leverage since many are in a holding pattern, waiting to see if they’ll be able to attend college in person this fall or take online classes, and deciding if it’s worth the cost.

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“In fact, if we’re not willing to push on this right now, we will continue to get the old system … universities are in a tough spot, and they’re not all behaving badly, but a lot of them are. We just finished a big study that’s going to come out next week looking at the American public priorities and what they want from higher education,” he said.

“It’s about cost, it’s just way too expensive. They want more access, they’re sick of the selectivity garbage, … they just want more access for more people. And they want a good job,” Rose added. “But this is what the public wants. It cuts across all demographics, race, gender, income.”

How exactly are schools behaving badly?

“I believe that they are not holding up their end of the social contract, especially the universities. We talk about them being the gatekeeper of opportunity — which they shouldn’t be — they somehow advance the social, educational, and occupational mission of the country,” he said. “But the truth is that in our recent survey, two-thirds of the American public said that higher education institutions serve their own interests only.”

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“When I know for sure that the top priority of the majority of the American public across all demographics is bringing this cost down, and when I start seeing university presidents, the first thing they say on TV is, ‘Well, obviously we can’t reduce tuition.’ But what do you mean, obviously? That’s not true. You’re telling me Zoom classes cost as much as in person?”

What he finds frustrating is that if colleges are supposed to exist to serve the public and the future of the country, they need to behave that way.

“I wish every university had a drive to add to the social contract,” Rose said. “But the truth is that if they’re unwilling to serve the public needs, then they don’t deserve to be in business.”

“It’s one thing if a small state school with very, very limited means says we really are struggling to bring costs down right now,” he added. “But when you have universities like Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford — some of them have endowments bigger than some countries’ GDP and they’re not reducing tuition? It tells you all you need to know about how they see themselves and how they see us.”

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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