Home Uncategorized The Iron Triangle: College Presidents Talk about Costs, Access, and Quality

The Iron Triangle: College Presidents Talk about Costs, Access, and Quality


As part of my ongoing review of some of the literature and topics around the affordability of a college education, I happened to find a publication from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education entitled The Iron Triangle: College Presidents Talk about Costs, Access, and Quality.  Prepared by John Immerwahr, Jean Johnson, and Paul Gasbarra, the report is about a unique piece of research in which 30 college and university presidents were interviewed for their perspectives on the three major issues of cost, access, and quality of higher education (and, the corners forming the Iron Triangle).

The introduction of this report provides the standard background data about (1) the influx of 20.4 million new students by 2016 (NCES data), including many minority and immigrant populations who have had inconsistent academic preparation for college; (2) the rapidly rising cost of a college degree which has more than doubled as a percentage of family income over the past two decades (data from the Losing Ground 2004 report which I believe is also in the Measuring Up 2008 report); (3) competition from other countries who are educating their younger workers at a faster rate than the U.S. (Measuring Up 2006 and Measuring Up 2008); and, (4) growing demands for accountability, transparency and assessment in higher education (e.g., the Spellings Commission).  The authors of the report mention that in over a decade of researching how different groups view large-scale public issues, the only way to work toward a resolution is to have all of the constituents agree on a common definition of the problem.  Based on their interviews of the 30 college and university presidents AND their public opinion research studies related to higher education over the past decade, the authors believe that most of the college presidents hold a different opinion about the issues than the general public.

The authors state that the college and university presidents believe that the three iron triangle factors of cost, quality, and access are “linked in an unbreakable reciprocal relationship, such that any change in one will inevitably impact the others.”  The authors cite previous research where (1) 56% of the public believes that colleges could spend less and still maintain high quality, (2) 52% of the public believes that colleges and universities are a business “with an eye on the bottom line,” (3) 40% of the public believes that “waste and mismanagement is a factor in driving up the cost of college,” and (4) more than 6 out of 10 government and business leaders believe that higher education is “too bureaucratic and resistant to change.”

The interviews and quotes in the report are anonymous.  They are organized around five parts:  (1) overview, (2) cost, (3) access, (4) quality and accountability, and (5) the way forward.  If you only have the time to read part of the report, read the introduction, Part V, The Way Forward, and the Afterward.  The consensus of the presidents as portrayed by the researchers is that government needs to pay more money if they expect increased access, quality and affordability.  The individual quotes are telling.  It is interesting to me that none of the presidents interviewed suggested utilization of technology to expand access and improve affordability as some distance education institutions have managed to do.

After reading the report, I can only predict the issues and the debate regarding higher education to continue at the legislative and executive branch level despite the sighs of relief from some now that we have “a professor in the White House.”  There are institutions that focus on the issues of access, affordability and quality.  Fourteen of us joined together to form Transparency by Design, about which I intend to write in the future.  I think the public is responding to institutions that focus on the three corners of the triangle by applying to and attending institutions who believe in their ability to improve the 3 without government intervention.  Read the report and let me know whether you agree with my assessment or not.



Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.



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