In a recent speech, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged colleges and universities to "think more creatively — and with much greater urgency — about how to contain the spiraling costs of college and reduce the burden of student debt on our nation's students."
Keeping academic standards high and the costs to students low will be the defining challenge in higher education in 2012.
If Duncan wants to see a model to accomplish these dual objectives, he should check out Ave Maria University.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, this year the average cost of tuition and fees at private colleges in America is $28,500, and yet Ave Maria charges just a little more than $20,000.
Because our mission urges us to keep the cost of attending college within the reach of as many families as possible, more than half of this cost at Ave Maria is covered by scholarships, thanks to the generosity of our founder, Tom Monaghan, and our many donors.
This means that the average student on our campus is paying less than $10,000 in tuition and fees annually. Students from Florida are paying even less because of state-supported scholarships (Bright Future and Florida Resident Access Grant). In fact, Florida residents attending Ave Maria have an out-of-pocket tuition cost comparable to the sticker price of the state's huge public universities.
That is good news for parents and their high school seniors who want a quality education without incurring a mountain of debt. With many private, liberal arts colleges now charging well over $40,000 per year in tuition, and with scholarship aid restricted to the privileged few (star students or athletes, for example), it is no wonder that there is widespread resentment in America over rising college costs.
So how does Ave Maria University keep its academic standards high and its costs low?
First, we attracted a first-class faculty without the trappings of tenure. Our professors hold degrees from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell and other prestigious institutions and could teach, research and get tenure anywhere. They chose Ave Maria because we value their scholarship and seek to provide the right environment for it.
Second, we have streamlined administration and kept the student-to-employee ratio high. Too many colleges and universities have bloated bureaucracies.
Third, we do not go overboard on athletics. A third of our students compete in 17 sports, guided by just a handful of full-time coaches. That model works for students and is affordable.
Last month the higher-education consulting group Hardwick Day released results from a survey conducted with 2,700 college graduates. The group asked the graduates how satisfied they were with their undergraduate experiences. Which colleges fared best? Private liberal arts colleges like Ave Maria. This is because students who learn how to think critically and write competently turn into graduates who can excel in the world.
That is good news, but it will be short-lived if their alma maters continue to price themselves out of reach.