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Daniels says college out of reach financially for too many students

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The cost of attaining a college degree is out of reach for many high school graduates, and that needs to be fixed, Purdue University President Mitch Daniels said.

Daniels spoke Monday to The Republic’s Editorial Board about challenges facing higher education, including affordability, the nationwide gap between employee skills and employer needs and growing concerns about Hoosier students being ready for college.

Regarding affordability, Daniels said a record percentage of this year’s freshmen reported they declined their first college choice, with cost most often the reason, Daniels said.

“I often say, only half-facetiously ... that (this) is the business you want to be in. You can raise the price wherever you want it to go, with no proof of the value of what you are selling. For a long time, people have associated a high price with greater quality.”

Purdue has frozen tuition the past two years, and Daniels is asking university trustees to also do it for a third year. He said he is encouraged that universities and even some state legislatures are finally recognizing and addressing the affordability challenges associated with obtaining a college degree.

After leaving Columbus, Daniels said he would be headed to Washington, D.C., for a briefing followed by a public release today of the first Gallup-Purdue index.

“It is the biggest survey ever undertaken of college graduates,” Daniels said.

The poll includes 30,000 graduates, and the goal is to gather new information about which kinds of schools are most associated with success. The research is not limited to just material success, but also self-reported fulfillment, engagement at work and other factors.

“We at Purdue and another significant number of schools are going to take the next step, which is to then survey, alongside of it, our own alums,” Daniels said. “I believe that it’s our responsibility, but also an opportunity to prove with rigor, the value of what we are doing.”

Daniels offered a glimpse at the poll’s findings, which indicate it matters much more how students approach their education than which university they attend. It also shows a lot of student debt has even more serious lifelong repercussions than previously thought and believes reform of the student aid system is a necessity.

“Flooding the market with loans and grants has left a lot of students worse off than they probably would have been,” Daniels said. “They borrowed all this money, and colleges raised their price, step by step.”

Another challenge for universities in making college more affordable is deciding where to cut, Daniels said. That’s because two-thirds of university operating costs are for personnel.

“We certainly have to work on any spending that isn’t directly related to the mission, (and) there is plenty of that,” Daniels said. “Much of this cost is imposed by government, (with) enormous demands for reporting and compliance and that costs a lot of money to manage, and that’s not getting any better.”

Another problem that must be addressed is the skills gap, which has left many employers struggling to find enough qualified applicants to fill positions that are now available, Daniels said.

Gov. Mike Pence has made career and technical education a priority and has introduced programs to close the gap, but Daniels agrees there is still a lot of work to do.

“Here in Columbus, many of us think of it as the best example we have of a place that has worked on this for a long time,” Daniels said. “It’s as good a model as we have of how a community or a region can try to draw together resources and work on this issue. I do see signs of hope and I’m all for these programs. I have been working on them for years now.”

Daniels applauds the progress being made to let students know there are rewarding and important careers available without the commitment of a four-year degree.

“I think we lost sight of that for a while,” Daniels said. “The College of Technology at Purdue is undertaking a transformation aimed squarely at preparing students in a different way that lines up with what employees are telling us we need most.”

Another challenge that increases the cost of higher education is that some students are leaving high school without the skills to begin a college education, so it takes longer, and costs more, to get a degree.

“There is no news in that,” Daniels said. “There have been tons of changes to Indiana K-12 education, including accountability for teachers, more choices for students to move to public schools or charter schools or even non-government schools. We have been named as one of the leaders in the country on this problem, but it will take vigilance because people are always trying to roll the clock back.”

Daniels acknowledged that there has been a lot of emphasis on prekindergarten, including in Columbus where the public school district will be seeking to pass a referendum this fall for a second time to pay the cost for the district’s neediest children.

But Daniels said data is inconclusive on how much of a long-term benefit early education provides, with non-prekindergarten students often catching up by about third grade.

“It makes intuitive sense. But it turns out that where it has been done, either the effects aren’t very dramatic or they disappear a few years later,” Daniel said. “It doesn’t mean it was a bad idea to

do. It just means that our hopes for it aren’t necessarily borne out by the evidence. I’m for forward motion starting with the most needy or vulnerable students.”

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