Letter to the Editor: NU can learn from Purdue, other Big Ten institutions

As a member of the Big Ten, NU shares hefty revenues from the conference’s cable TV sports network. Why not share other schools’ practices as well?

Purdue University is a good place to start. Mitch Daniels became Purdue’s president in January 2013 after serving two terms as Governor of Indiana. He launched a new program called “Purdue Moves,” with a series of bold initiatives — many of which NU’s administration could benefit from adopting as well.

In one of his initiatives, Daniels froze tuition and all fees for the first time in 36 years. Out-of-state students’ total tab was capped at $28,804, while tuition sat at $9,992 for in-state students. That freeze was later extended to 2019, and has resulted in a 35 percent drop in undergraduate student debt since 2012. The freeze likely allowed Purdue to increase enrollment of low-income students. A similar freeze of NU’s tuition and room and board costs would be a solid step toward the University’s goal of recruiting more low- and moderate-income students. Two years ago, Northwestern announced that starting in the 2016-2017 school year, all incoming first-year undergraduate students who qualify for assistance will receive fully grant based financial aid packages, without loans. Even while increasing financial aid, NU has raised the total sticker price to more than $72,000 a year.

To further reduce student costs, Daniels also started a three-year program for B.A. degrees called “Degree In 3.” Students can carry a larger course load during the normal academic year and take courses over the summer. By doing so, they complete the same number of credits required for a four-year degree. The faster academic pace can save out-of-state students over $18,000 and in-state students approximately $9,000. Some private universities have experimented with three-year degrees, but primarily for students who took Advanced Placement high school courses. Purdue is one of the first large universities to offer this program to students without prior AP credits. Not every student wants this option, but why not offer it to those who do? Can Northwestern say “We Will” to that proposal?

To reduce textbook costs, Purdue initiated a precedent-setting partnership with Amazon in which students can save up to 30 percent on textbooks yearly. Many NU students complain about high textbook costs. How about launching a similar partnership with an online vendor?

In a separate bold and largely controversial move, Purdue acquired Kaplan University, a primarily online, for-profit institution. This venture — titled NewU — is aimed at raising Purdue’s web presence, but it raised fierce faculty protests after the deal was announced. Critics claim that Purdue risks ruining its reputation by working with a firm that paid millions in legal settlements for allegedly unscrupulous business practices. But Daniels said the move is vital for a traditional university to survive during rapid technology changes and a growing concern over the value and cost of a college degree.

“There are a lot of people who think that residential higher education is on borrowed time,” Daniels said in a 2017 Bloomberg article. New entrepreneurs “backed by a lot of big money, using dazzling technologies” say to prospective students: “‘Why would you pick up and move somewhere and pay rent for four years when I can bring the best education available to you while you sit in your pajamas’ … We’ve got to pass the ‘pajama test,’” he declared. How will NU pass that test?

Purdue and NU share other similarities besides Big Ten membership. They gained excellent academic reputations and large enrollments. But despite facing similar pressures and responsibilities running large, prestigious academic institutions, Mitch Daniels and Morty Schapiro have clear disparities in their leadership styles. Perhaps NU should take Purdue’s commitment to truly putting students first.

Dick Reif, Medill ’64