Bring Faculty Into Discussion on How to Control Rising College Costs, New Report Advises

Public Agenda Cites Need For Policymakers, Administrators And Faculty To Talk Candidly About How To Keep Costs Under Control


APRIL 29, 2009, New York - With state budgets under pressure from the economic downturn and widespread public anxiety about whether college is accessible to all qualified students, a new report released today points to the need for policymakers, public higher education leadership, and faculty to join together to look for ways to keep public higher education costs under control. The new report, entitled "Campus Commons? What Faculty, Financial Officers and Others Think about Controlling College Costs," outlines differing perspectives on the cost containment challenges facing higher education. The report was prepared for Lumina Foundation for Education’s Making Opportunity Affordable initiative, a multi-year initiative focused on increasing productivity within U.S. higher education, particularly at two- and four-year public colleges and universities. The research was conducted by Public Agenda, the nonpartisan opinion research and citizen engagement organization.

According to Jamie P. Merisotis, Lumina’s president and chief executive officer, “It is essential to find ways to keep college affordable. Our economy depends on increasing the educational attainment of the work force, and our sense of fairness demands that students from all backgrounds have access to affordable college programs.”

Broad concern, but different starting points

Concern about rising costs and their impact on students and communities is widespread among higher education leadership, faculty, and the public at large, according to the "Campus Commons?" report, as it is among leaders in government and business. But the report identifies some potentially troublesome communications gaps between the views of financial officers charged with making ends meet and faculty whose focus is on academic issues and the classroom. The two groups approach the problem of controlling college costs from very different angles.

  • Based on a series of confidential one-on-one interviews, financial officers often believed that public higher education institutions could be more cost effective and graduate more students by stretching available dollars. Many felt that faculty sometimes resist changes that could make their institutions more cost-effective. As one said, “A friend of mine likened it to the stages of grief. When you tell the English department, for example, that it will be having significant reductions in their programs, in personnel, it goes through a series of stages. Anger is by no means the shortest.”
  • In contrast, faculty members interviewed in focus groups for the project broadly believed that too many students come to college academically and socially under-prepared, and their top concern centered on maintaining standards rather than controlling costs. As one professor said, “I’m finding that a lot of our students are not really ready for the college learning environment. They’re not independent learners or thinkers or self-starters.” Another said, “To some degree, it’s amazing that some of these students are actually given a high school diploma. You wonder what it was that they studied and learned and what was the whole basis other than seat time.”
  • Many public higher education faculty members also feared that basing institutional goals and incentives on increasing the number of graduates could boomerang, resulting in lower academic standards. As one put it, “So what if you graduate more people and hand more people a piece of paper. It doesn’t necessarily mean that piece of paper means anything.”

College costs escalating and out of reach for many

The "Campus Commons?" report comes against a backdrop of calls from a broad array of elected officials and business leaders to dramatically increase the number of Americans students earning postsecondary degrees and credentials in the coming decade. At the same time, tuition at public higher education institutions has been rising faster than the rate of inflation and faster than the income levels of middle-class and lower-income families, according to a recent 50-state review of college affordability conducted by the National Center on Public Policy and Higher Education. The report, “Measuring Up 2008,” concluded that “the financial burden of paying for college costs has increased substantially, particularly for low- and middle-income families, even when scholarships and grants are taken into account.” The findings hold true even for lower-cost public two-year institutions.

The "Campus Commons?" report calls for broader public discussion about the future of higher education, and urges policymakers and institutions to bring faculty in the conversations sooner rather than later. Public Agenda’s Jean Johnson commented: “In the early debate on K-12 school reform, the impression was often that it was the “reformers” versus the “teachers.” That perception is now beginning to fade, but it would be better to avoid the detour in the first place. Let’s get the faculty in on the dialogue right now in the beginning stages. An “us” versus “them” dynamic will just slow progress.”

"Campus Commons?" includes:


The report is based on a small-scale qualitative study conducted by Public Agenda consisting of six focus groups with higher education faculty in both two-year and four-year public higher education institutions, along with 19 one-on-one confidential interviews with higher education financial officers at the state or institutional level. The report also summarizes research from two earlier reports: "The Iron Triangle: College Presidents Talk About Costs, Access and Quality" and "SqueezePlay 2009: The Public’s Views on College Costs Today,” by Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

More information about Making Opportunity Affordable is available at

"Difficult Dialogues, Rewarding Solutions," which addresses productivity in higher education, is Public Agenda's report from the 4th Annual Policy Summit of the Midwestern Higher Education Compact and is available at
Public Agenda is a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization founded by social scientist and author Daniel Yankelovich and former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in 1975 to help American leaders better understand the public's point of view and to help citizens know more about critical policy issues so they can make thoughtful, informed decisions.

Making Opportunity Affordable is a multi-year initiative focused on increasing productivity within U.S. higher education, particularly at two- and four-year public colleges and universities. The initiative, supported by the Lumina Foundation for Education, relies on partner organizations working within various states to develop, promote and implement policies and practices that will use dollars invested by students, parents and taxpayers to graduate more students.

New from Public Agenda


Public Agenda knows what it takes to fuel progress on critical issues.
We need your support to keep things moving!

Join the Community


Take Action