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.



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