There is an escalating crisis in higher education. The perception that a college education is too expensive is discouraging students from pursuing their dreams. Student debt is an issue, but it is important for students to understand that a college degree remains the single best investment in their future earning potential and quality of life. Much has changed over the decades as the role of higher education in society has changed. Today, colleges not only provide education, but they also provide the key ingredients to a rewarding life and the ability and skills to be a responsible citizen.
In trying to understand how we got here, Norwich University President Richard W. Schneider, who has been president at Norwich since 1992, likes to put the high cost of education into a larger context — not to defend it, but to try to understand it in order to develop solutions to the problem.
Schneider points out that when he was a student at the Coast Guard Academy in the 1960s, his entire technology cost was about $24 for a slide rule. Unlike today, there were no “technology fees.” Norwich’s total technology budget is now over $8 million per year. There were also no counseling and wellness centers, academic achievement centers or Title IX offices. There were very few specialty accreditations for professional majors. Things were simpler and less expensive back then. Health-care costs alone have seen huge increases at every institution. Colleges were also less dynamic and the environment much less diverse, to society’s detriment. For instance, Schneider points out that everyone in his class of cadets “looked the same; ate the same; prayed the same; and thought the same,” and he knows that meant a sameness in the approach to students’ problem-solving.
Today’s global society requires citizens to be well-equipped to bring innovative solutions to extremely complex problems. Critical thinking skills have never been more important for today’s leaders and citizens. Tomorrow’s leaders simply must have multicultural agility and be able to lead diverse teams.
Norwich has been educating men and women in the liberal arts and professional studies in a military environment to both build and defend the republic since 1819. This year, Norwich is celebrating 200 years of educating citizen-soldiers. A major piece of its sustainability plan for the next century, a $100 million “Forging the Future” capital campaign in celebration of the bicentennial, has allowed Norwich to invest in a new teaching and learning environment with new and renovated buildings, enhanced technology to fuel diverse learning modalities and styles, and in new academic programs to address the world’s challenges, such as climate change, affordable housing and cybersecurity, to name a few. The students paid for none of these improvements, as all the funding was provided to support them by alumni and friends. Completely dedicated to the students’ academic experience, this campaign has also raised millions for student scholarships. As Norwich prepares for the next 200 years, the top three priorities for the future of the institution are: flexibility, affordability and relevance. This campaign advanced all three of those critical elements.
At Norwich, as at most colleges and universities, a college education has come to encompass so much more than just academics. Institutions of higher education have absorbed much of the responsibilities of improving our culture. We must educate and train students where they are as they arrive, and develop them into the leaders of character and integrity America so desperately needs. We have progressed into a more holistic society that treats the student as a whole person and not just as a receptacle of new information. Now, it is imperative to provide the services that today’s students need and expect, like a state-of-the-art counseling and wellness center, to support overall student success.
As our society has grown into a truly global neighborhood, life moves faster. In order to educate tomorrow’s leaders in the military, in business and government, and to fuel diverse thinking, students need to study abroad and conduct hands-on research. Norwich has also developed interdisciplinary centers of academic excellence in writing, climate studies, peace and war, cybersecurity, design build, leadership and applied research. All that requires strategic investment to educate the leaders we need.
Norwich’s professional programs — in nursing, engineering, business, architecture, and cybersecurity — all have specialty accreditations. This means that the academic programs and the quality and credentials of the faculty and equipment are up to industry standards, and Norwich graduates will be well-prepared to begin contributing to their new occupation straight out of college. And accreditation is expensive, yet vital to program integrity, individual competency and continued improvement. They are a system of checks and standards designed to keep academic programs relevant and to ensure that a student’s investment in a degree is of value to them in their chosen profession.
It has been an arms race to keep up with the standards and expectations of a college education, and it has been expensive. At the end of the day, without students there is no university. Somehow, colleges and universities must maintain their competitive advantage with state-of-the-art facilities while not passing on that cost directly to students, as we have at Norwich.
So, what is one Vermont institution of higher education doing to address the issue of affordability? To help lay the groundwork for creative solutions to affordability, this year Norwich became the first Vermont institution to implement a pilot program of income share agreements (ISA). Norwich’s ISAs offer reduced tuition for an agreed-upon share of future earnings. This is an alternative to a traditional student loan and one creative solution to affordability. This program is essentially Norwich investing in the future success of its students, because we know they will be successful.
As a private institution, Norwich has the ability to be flexible. Developing new programs to meet today’s demands and embracing new ways for students to pay for college is just the beginning.
This bicentennial anniversary gives us the opportunity to really examine where we have been and where we are going in our third century.
On Wednesday, Feb. 20, Norwich will celebrate 200 years of education with programs all day at the State House. Anyone interested in learning about the future of Norwich, its impact on our state of Vermont and on the world, and how we got here, should come by and check it out.
Daphne Larkin is director of media relations & community affairs at Norwich University.