Embracing the essentials

Georgia Nugent reflects on the challenges of fiscal constraint

As S. Georgia Nugent begins her presidency, she's well aware that the nation's current economic slump poses serious challenges for universities and colleges, including Kenyon.

"The economic situation affects our entire society," she says, "so all of higher education will be facing some belt-tightening. My feeling is that Kenyon has done that in the past with good will and grace under pressure, and done it by deliberately choosing priorities. That kind of belt-tightening is not necessarily negative. There is an advantage in having to work with a limited budget and having to focus on the essentials."

"The essentials," she notes, may have different meanings at different kinds of institutions. Some universities, fearful of driving away students through the "sticker shock" of tuition hikes, are devising stripped-down, job-oriented programs.

"The University of Phoenix is offering people the kind of credentials they need to get jobs at a very reasonable price," Nugent says. "They've got people teaching at shopping centers. And now they do Internet courses. That's opening up education for more of the American public. But they're not going to touch the sector that goes to Princeton, Harvard, or Kenyon."

That sector, presumably, sees the essentials in higher education as transcending job placement. Even so, the Princetons and the Kenyons face economic pressure, too. Nugent wants to identify factors driving up costs and see what a college such as Kenyon can and should deliver at a reasonable price. This kind of exercise requires soul-searching and fiscal discipline.

"It's a fair generalization to say that American higher education is very, very bad at saying no," Nugent says. "All institutions continually add academic programs, recreational programs, you name it. Consequently, they end up in a vicious price spiral. There are almost no institutions that ratchet down."

The choices aren't easy, in part because the very "customers" who wince at tuition increases would be loathe to give up the programs and resources that those increases pay for. "Parents and students are expecting and demanding an array of services that are raising costs," Nugent explains. "If you want the cost to be less, the parents have to ask for less."

Costs also rise, of course, because the curriculum expands to keep pace with advances in knowledge and trends in teaching. "Growing more and more course offerings has been the trend for the last decade," Nugent says.

Is that growth essential or not? It's certainly possible to offer students a very good education "without necessarily branching out into an extreme boutique curriculum," Nugent says. "There's an advantage for an undergraduate education to be bounded by a selective curriculum."

At the same time, she notes, "the universe of knowledge has expanded and there are simply more fields of study today that students have to be aware of. There are areas like molecular biology that didn't exist when I went to school. You can't close your eyes and say that's newfangled stuff we don't need."

In a time of fiscal constraint, colleges and universities nationwide will be contemplating their future in terms of vital tradition and necessary change, seeking to distinguish the essential from the newfangled. At Kenyon, so steeped in the critical conversations that define the liberal arts, as well as in a history of financial challenges, that sort of contemplation happens all the time--and, Kenyon being Kenyon, it happens with soul-searching and fiscal discipline.

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