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Yes, Mr. President, But …

I applaud President Obama for putting the importance of a college education squarely at the center of the national agenda in his speech at the University at Buffalo, and for insisting that students get the education they need regardless of economic circumstances. He is right to insist on greater clarity in how colleges and the government inform prospective students and their families about the net price of attendance, the availability of financial aid, student debt, and graduation rates. Holding institutions accountable for providing a quality education and helping graduates with reasonable loan-repayment policies are not only legitimate but essential. His emphasis on value will bring much-needed attention to the question of how we define, measure, and reward it.

But the inevitably broad generalizations that shape his diagnoses and proposed solutions cover over significant differences among the missions of institutions in this broad and varied sector, leaving gaps that I hope will be addressed by taking account of those differences. He leaves no doubt, thankfully, that we all need to ensure that a college education is accessible and affordable while also of high quality. I have questions about the “we” who need to make it affordable and about how we promote and assess quality in education.

The forms of accountability that the president proposes are important, but they are not sufficient. Moreover, if adopted without sufficient nuance in their application, they have the potential for unintended consequences—the temptation, for example, to produce more graduates at the expense of academic standards and adequate preparation. When isolated from other measures of the quality of education, some of the more easily quantifiable indicators can be misleading.

Our understanding of value ought to include students’ intellectual growth and understanding; the lasting impact of what they learn and the unpredictable ways in which its benefits make themselves felt over time; their capacity for complex thought, analysis, adaptation, and creativity; and the opportunity they get in college to build the social worlds on which they will rely for a lifetime.

We have to make space for promoting those forms of value in our public discussions, by having the patience and wisdom to recognize their force and make it intelligible. Producing more degrees, as important as it is, is not a perfect proxy for a good education or its lifelong benefits for individuals and society as a whole.

The financial success of graduates is a crucial bottom line, but we reduce a college education to the development of job skills and future income at our collective peril. President Obama stresses postgraduation income for understandable reasons. He sees higher education as the key to a middle-class life—a critical path for individuals and families, but also for a nation plagued by increasing economic inequality and a struggling middle class. Higher education has been a path to opportunity and upward mobility for countless Americans and is a significant part of the mission for which we receive public support. In return, we owe the public a concerted effort to control costs while aggressively recruiting and supporting students who might otherwise not consider or imagine graduating from our colleges—or from college at all.

Some institutions are doing their part to provide generous financial aid and put limits on the packaging of loans, while adapting pedagogical and curricular offerings to include new knowledge and meet changing student interests and needs. Different institutions are pursuing innovation differently, as they should. Those efforts get lost or fail to be recognized when a gleeful rhetoric of “disruption” and threat fills the available airspace. Institutions are seeking a range of ways to control costs while acknowledging that one driver of those costs is the fact that better faculty-to-student ratios and faculty-student engagement enhance learning.

There also are examples of excess and misplaced priorities, as there are in every sector, but they should not be taken for the whole. I contend that higher education cannot and should not be expected unfairly to meet the call for opportunity and mobility on its own. It never has. The problems in our “industry” mirror larger societal—even global—trends that are not wholly in our control. Our great institutions, particularly the public colleges, and students at all our institutions need the kinds of increases in public investment that have allowed higher education at other critical historical junctures to expand access, develop new areas of study, and fuel innovation and economic growth.

Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin is president of Amherst College.

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