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Higher Education Financial Focus Should Look Outside

Nothing tends to focus the mind more than impending doom in the form of the speeding train that is our current financial crisis. Colleges and universities across the nation are studying spreadsheets as if presidents and provosts were scholars examining the Dead Sea Scrolls, but the focus on higher education should not be self-involved but rather on the students in our classrooms.

It’s obvious, but the mission of any college or university is to provide an education and life-changing experiences for every student who comes to your college. In lean times, it’s hard to justify taking money we receive from hard-pressed families and using it to install a coffee bar in the student center or to poach a Pulitzer-winning professor from another institution.

Instead of bemoaning the loss of a new palatial residence hall, artificial turf athletic field or downsizing the presidential car from a Mercedes to a Prius, it’s high time we concentrate our resources to help make the journey to a diploma easier for our students and their families.

Admittedly, changing the culture at any business and education institution is a bit like steering an aircraft carrier by trailing a hand in the water—but if we can reach out and help more of our students weather the current crisis, then the changes we make now can make real President Obama’s goal of making college more affordable and within reach of every American.

Here are some things colleges and universities can do to ensure students get the most affordable education possible.

—Increase work-study positions on your campus. Many colleges and universities have full-time employees doing jobs that could be done by talented students. If you have students doing jobs that pay well off-campus, such as IT support or supervisory positions, then pay them well above the minimum wage.

—Set aside money to help families adjust their financial aid if the family’s primary wage-earner is out of a job or the family experiences a drastic financial crisis.

—Use funds from the institution’s endowment principal to create a pool for short-term, low-interest loans for families whose current loans are no longer viable due to changes in real estate values or other issues.

—Turn off the lights. Rather than building a $26 million building with plants on the roof and declaring yourself “green,” make an effort to install low-energy bulbs, replace inefficient infrastructure when making repairs, and make sure all building renovations are energy-efficient. Yes, and turn off the lights, unplug the computer and turn the air conditioner to 78 degrees. You’d be surprised at the money you’ll save.

—Work with food service providers to deliver a variety of food plans that will lower costs for students.

—Make sure every student graduates within four years or less. The inconvenient truth of higher education is that many students take five or six years to graduate and those extra years of tuition and wages lost to not working are the equivalent of throwing away a brand-new car or the down payment on a house. By instituting careful faculty advising, more personal interaction with students and flexible, interdisciplinary majors, colleges and universities can ensure there won’t be any “eighth-year seniors” around to take up valuable resources.

As in politics, all financial crises are essentially local. Campuses also should ask not what a community can do for them but rather what they can do for the community.

Beyond education, colleges are entertainment providers, employers and service providers for their hometown. The typical college campus houses manpower, intellectual resources and activities that often go unused or unseen.

The opportunities to reach out are many. Have accounting students complete tax returns for the elderly and low-income families. Have student clubs offer free yardwork or spring cleanings. Let employees have a day off to give a workshop at the Rotary or talk about their job at a high school. Offer one free concert a year featuring a national entertainer. Create a free camp experience using students recruited from the education department. Develop a business incubator for your students and members of the community. These types of ideas are only limited by the culture of the campus.

The natural inclination in difficult circumstances is to put your head down and protect what you have. Institutes of higher education must work to avoid that mind-set. Perhaps the most valuable lesson a college can deliver is that it’s OK to look outside the bunker to focus on the flowers blooming on the battlefield.

Thomas R. Kepple is president of Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa.