Cardinal Stritch UniversityCardinal Stritch University

Access and Affordability: Moving the Needle

Resounding voices across America are collectively shouting for greater college access and increased affordability. Students hoping to achieve a college diploma are conflicted. Students weigh the possibility of burdensome student loans versus the possibility of increased earnings a college degree may bring.

With every day that passes, voices are getting louder and national attention is being garnered - college affordability is a major political issue. And, undoubtedly, a time when the higher education system in this country will be forced to change. The stakes are too high. Students not able to attend college because it is too expensive is unacceptable.   

That said, change happens slowly. And unless pressured by outside forces, change happens at a glacial pace at colleges and universities. That is why I am proud to work at a university where we’ve prioritized access and affordability as top institutional initiatives, not because we have to but because it’s the right thing to do. 

Transfer students typically share two concerns with me: 1) cost, and 2) credit transfer. And while I think both are legitimate concerns, I don’t see them as separate. In fact, stealing from algebra, cost and credit transfer are related; they’re inversely related. If your courses don’t transfer towards your desired degree, your cost will increase. You’ll have additional semesters needed towards completing your degree, which equals more tuition owed. For this reason, I characterize the two concerns of cost and credit transfer into just one issue, cost.  

What I’m not hearing from transfer students, and I wish I was, is a concern about value. While the lifetime earnings of a degree holder is 75% higher than someone who doesn’t graduate from college, it matters where that degree is earned (NCES). Why are prospective students not asking about the retention rate of transfer students? Why are prospective students not asking about graduation outcomes and average salaries? And most importantly, why are transfer students not asking about student support and mentorship opportunities at the university?  

The US Department of Education’s College Scorecard reveals that you get what you pay for. For example, Marquette University returns students from year to year at a rate 24% higher than the national average. Marquette graduate students at a rate 36% higher than the national average. And these graduates earn $21,300 more than the average college graduate. A prospective student MUST ask these questions of an institution if she is serious about cost and value. After all, one institution may have the lower sticker price, but that doesn’t mean it is committed to supporting students once they arrive, graduating students in a timely manner, and setting up a new graduate for a lifetime of career success and increased earnings. Arriving at a decision without considering these possibilities may unfortunately lead to a student failing to graduate, or spending additional and unanticipated semesters at an institution to earn that degree, or squandering job prospects all together. 

College access and affordability is a conversation being discussed on the national stage. It’s a topic that affects millions of people and thousands of colleges and universities.  Before long, most legislators and many colleges and universities will have to face the uncomfortable reality that they are out of reach for many college going students. A change will have to be made to increase access and affordability on a massive scale.  

That said, I am reassured that some colleges and universities are creating real change within their walls. Many institutions are reflecting on existing procedures and policies, and ultimately tearing down the barriers preventing a student from attending.  These efforts are not without challenges. But failing to support a student achieve her higher education aspirations is simply unacceptable. I am hopeful that students everywhere recognize their unique position to move the needle. Students should ask these tough questions of colleges and universities everywhere.