Last week, I wrote about the problem of ever-rising costs for higher education and this week, I promised to provide some proposed solutions.

As I gathered my thoughts, I quickly reached one conclusion: it is going to take much more than just a single column for me to cover the many possible solutions that come to mind on this complex issue of enormous concern to American families.

The good news is that there are, in fact, a range of potential responses to what U.S. Rep. Howard S. “Buck” McKeon of California has called the “college cost crisis.” The bad news is that there really is no silver bullet that can quell the crisis overnight. It will take the collaboration of all constituencies of higher education – including college and university administrators, students, parents and taxpayers – to bring workable solutions to market.

I suspect that I might be writing about this topic for several weeks, but today I will focus on just one cost “item,” namely the bricks and mortar that some colleges are spending tens of millions of dollars on in recent years, in order to improve the “physical plants” of their campuses.

One word leaps to mind as I begin to address this facilities topic: conundrum. The conundrum for schools is that nearly every one of them wants to be perceived as “the best” among its peers. But in order to be perceived as “the best,” the school feels it must do what it takes to attract an ever better group of students.

Just as some highly ranked employers compete for the very best workers by building attractive workplace facilities or by adding sought-after amenities, many schools take a similar tack. Often, the impetus comes from a costly outside consultant, who advises a college or university to put some serious dollars into the learning and living places where students will be spending most of their time.

Of course, it is human nature to be attracted to a “nicer place,” no matter whether it is a venue to shop, to work or to live in study for four years. It is no surprise, therefore, when parents and students end up being affected by a school’s physical attributes as their “co-purchase” is made of a college and university.

So what can we as parents do? How can we solve this conundrum? It all comes down to striking a balance, and instilling the proper values in our children. We should insist, of course, that all buildings on any campus be safe and clean. Many of us remember, I am sure, the total lack of security for dorms and the sometime interesting objects (live or inert) that might have shown up on a cafeteria plate, or could at least be seen from the cafeteria line, when we were in college ourselves.

But when we tell those stories of the way things were “back in our day,” we must remember to temper our anecdotes of how spartan the living conditions really were, and of how plain ugly some of the classroom environments could be. I don’t know about you, but the memories that linger for me are of conversations around the dinner table, points made in the classroom and shared laughter on the sideline of an athletic event. I don’t much remember or care much at all of the quality of the workmanship in the facilities where those memories were made.

Just as we temper our stories from the past, so must we temper our own, and our children’s, expectations for the future. Let’s face up, many of our children have come to expect their own well-appointed room, their at-the-fingertips choice of the latest in electronics, their favorite brand of weight-training equipment within a reasonable walking distance, the list of “stuff” can go on and on.

So let’s discuss this “stuff” with our kids and put it in context, teach them that academic and interpersonal learning are the really important issues on which to focus, and, in the process, begin to do our admittedly small part in holding down college costs. If schools begin to hear our message that the important issues to address are the words spoken in a classroom and not the grade of carpet for a classroom, then we will begin to move the school-parent cost conversation in the right direction, while reinforcing some important, fundamental values with our children along the way.

I’ll be back next week with another actionable idea for holding down college costs. Enjoy the Super Bowl.

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