By Diane G. Smathers
American higher education faces three major challeng- es: cost, access, and quali-
ty. They form what the academy
calls an iron triangle, and facts
threatening the bonds of this triad
are scary. How to deal with these
issues extends to The Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi,
based as we are in higher education.
College has become unaffordable for lower-income families, and even many middle-class counterparts carry enormous debt. Undergraduate tuition,
room, and board in 2011-12 totaled some $36,300
at private schools and $13,600 at public schools in
current dollars, according to the National Center
for Education Statistics. “The average student-loan
debt of borrowers in the college class of 2011 rose
to about $26,500, a five percent increase from about
$25,350 the previous year,” reported The New York Times
last October. And the 70: 30 ratio of grants to loans
in the 1970s has effectively reversed, finds the National Education Association.
It takes students longer to complete an undergraduate degree, too. (Statistics vary. See, for instance, Jennifer Gonzalez’s “Helping Students
Complete Degrees on Time,” in The Chronicle of
Higher Education, Oct. 6, 2010, and John Bound,
Michael Lovenheim, and Sarah Turner’s April
By Peter Szatmary
Our sense of temporality often changes when ex- periencing good news
or bad news. “The time flew
by,” we say, upon a pleasurable
occurrence. “I lost all track of
time.” An upsetting incident
feels like “it was the longest night of my life.” And,
when it’s finally over, we declare, “I thought that
night would never end.”
This illusory distortion to the inevitable flow of
the clock during our highs and lows seems only
human nature. For instance, because I consider a
worthwhile book a type of good news, I tend to
read slower toward the conclusion of one because
I want to linger in that world, make it last. Then
again, sometimes I speed up if I can’t wait to share
it with someone or if there are other works by the
same author to check out.
Holden Caulfield, the sensitive and troubled
high school protagonist who narrates J. D. Salin-
ger’s 1951 canonical novel The Catcher in the Rye,
put it this way: “What really knocks me out is a
book that, when you’re all done reading it, you
wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend
of yours and you could call him up on the phone
whenever you felt like it.”
Processing and perspective, thus, become im-
portant — perhaps especially with bad news. We
want to move beyond it (as much as possible,
anyway). But we can’t until we’ve sorted through
many variables: why it happened; what it means
to us and affected parties; how, if at all, to
2010 working paper, Increasing Time to Baccalaureate
Degree in the United States, for the National Bureau
of Economic Research.) One reason is the ballooning expense. Another is student unreadiness.
And then there is the whole issue of quality.
The fundamental purpose of colleges and universities is to educate students. But with institutions increasingly being forced to place more emphasis on accountability, assessments, audits, and
a whole cadre of quantitative measures, the
heart of the mission may get lost.
This is all bad news.
The good news is that reform is imminent and Phi Kappa Phi is involved.
America cannot afford to lessen emphasis on higher education. Indeed, democracy depends upon a learned, curious, and innovative populace. Although federal support of higher
education has been reduced drastically and state
support is practically nil in many instances, those
passionate about academia, and those who have
realized its benefits such as Phi Kappa Phi members, are championing the cause.
For example, schools must devise strategies to
assist students with costs, and the Society now bestows $1 million biennially in fellowships, grants,
and awards for excellence. As campuses undertake
major gift campaigns, a new development committee for the Phi Kappa Phi Foundation will seek
prevent it from happening again. For some of
us, it’s as if time comes to a crawl as real bad
news unfolds. For me, this time warp kicks in immediately afterwards. Both reactions, it can be
argued, reflect fear and helplessness on the one
hand and survival instincts and coping strategies
on the other.
horrible blow, I set my radio to Muzak to soothe
myself as I figured things out, and then to news to
get on with things.
Of course, our every day is replete with good
and bad, big and small. That’s one reason my Society headquarters colleague Traci Navarre suggested the theme “Good News, Bad News.” And
the very life-to-death continuum bespeaks these
poles. So we prioritize, usually, when our grasp of
time gets out of whack for a spell. That’s good
news. Is it bad news, too?