By the time you read this issue, students will have arrived on campus for the beginning of fall semester. Like crocuses pushing their way through the crusty remnants of winter in the springtime, their return is a rite of renewal for the campus community. Their energy, enthusiasm, and optimism are infectious.
They bring to mind my transition to college four decades ago. My parents were mystified and saddened that I chose a school 100 miles away when I could easily have gone to the university 10 minutes from our house. My choice meant that I would graduate with debt—something that was anathema to my father. But I couldn’t imagine not going to college and I couldn’t imagine not leaving home.
Dad and I eventually came around to appreciating each other’s point of view. He gave me a standing ovation when I received my diploma, which embarrassed and secretly thrilled me. And when I had to find a job and start repaying my loans, I wondered why on earth I hadn’t listened to him.
All of which is to say that the price tag of college and the issue of student debt are not unique to our day. But they hover over a question that everyone, it seems, is asking: Is college worth it? (Google it: You’ll find dozens of articles the Atlantic, Time, Minnesota Monthly, Forbes, the Economist, U.S. News & World Report, and many other publications.)
It’s a good question to ask. But there’s a narrative to the public discourse these days that assumes anyone who goes to college will be hobbled by massive debt for decades. In fact, the realities vary widely; some students graduate with modest or no debt. We do young people a disservice when we contribute to the perception that college is simply not worth consideration because it’s out of reach.
Keep those young people in mind as you read this issue, which explores the future of higher education. The centerpiece is a thought-provoking conversation among four alumni: University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler and Provost Karen Hanson; President Robert Brown of Boston University; and Chancellor Rebecca Blank from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Their discussion took place on a conference call and we’ve published the transcript in its entirety, lightly edited for style and clarity only. I thank each of them for giving their time and energy to Minnesota and their fellow University of Minnesota alumni. Their thoughtful leadership is part of the good news about higher education.
Another story I want to draw to your attention is about the U’s remarkable turnaround in graduation rates. As the presidents point out in their conversation, keeping college affordable and assuring that students graduate in four years are inextricably linked. The story of how the U has painstakingly reversed trends graduation rates is truly inspiring.
I hope this issue of the magazine gives you plenty of food for thought. After you’ve digested it, join the conversation.
Cynthia Scott (M.A. ’89) is the editor of Minnesota. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.