Robert Zemsky will be the first to tell you that obtaining a higher education is expensive—”obscenely expensive” were his words.

Oddly, though, Zemsky is quick to say that affordability is not what’s keeping college-age individuals from attending.

“How can it be unaffordable when 12 million people a year are buying it?” Zemsky asked. “And every year more people are buying it as it gets more expensive.”

Zemsky, chair of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education, a strategic coalition of individuals and organizations offering expertise to college and university leaders, added, “I’m not going to deny that higher education is too expensive…but we live in a borrowing culture. Think of higher education as a mortgage. It’s a long-term investment that pays off over the long term.”

Zemsky spoke Feb. 22 before about 100 people at Ashurst Auditorium. He was the third guest in President Haeger’s Speakers Series. In addition to his work with the Learning Alliance for Higher Education, Zemsky is also the founding director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Research on Higher Education, a public policy center specializing in educational research and analysis.

A recent poll of 18- to 30-year-olds in Pennsylvania indicated that while some individuals believe they are being priced out of higher education, it was only 8 percent of the respondents. “I know for those people it’s really tough, but 92 percent said the expense is not stopping them.”

And compare the college-going rates of almost any demographic—African American, Hispanic, rural students—and you see their participation in higher education has increased the same number of percentage points. But there still remain serious gaps, he said. African Americans attending college remain at 20 percentage points lower than whites.

He offered potential solutions to college accessibility. “The three ways to close the gap for college participation are college readiness, economic development and system alignment.”

Economic development pushes the rate of college participation, just as the unemployment rate can affect college attendance. One indicator of economic development could be the number of colleges and universities in the area. “Are there a lot of colleges nearby? If there is no community college nearby, the lower the probability you will go to college.”

Students who find a way to attend college need to be prepared if they are to succeed, he said. “If you can’t read at a basic level, you’re not going to college,” Zemsky said. “If you want to do something about college participation, do something about reading and math comprehension. This is a preparedness issue and not a financial aid issue…Kids are being handed stuff they’ve never seen before (in high school).”

He suggested a system realignment in which universities create partnerships with community colleges to help with a transitional phase to college. “It’s criminal to have people expend all that energy to learn things and be told by universities they’ve learned the wrong things,” he said.

Although Zemsky opposes the ideas of higher educational institutions using standardized testing, he said colleges have reached the end of the “game called trust me.” Most people don’t know what colleges and universities are doing, he said. “Is there a product we sell?” he asked. “We don’t have an answer to what people are buying in higher education.

“We’ve developed a market without a consumer,” he added. “A discussion of testing is a cry for help. Tell us what you’re doing.”

Zemsky encouraged university presidents to return to the mold of being public individuals who made public pronouncements. “Most grad students don’t know the president of their own institution,” he said. “The president of an institution needs a public role and a public voice…Most presidents are surrounded by people who say, ‘Be careful.'”

Responding to a question from the audience, Zemsky said he doesn’t believe e-learning is working. Universities have the “whiz-bang” software but don’t know what to do with it, like Amazon.com and other web business that track their customers.

Zemsky said he prefers a “bricks and clicks” method, where students combine web courses and in-classroom instruction.

The fourth and final speaker in the 2005-06 series will be Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University. Crow will discuss “Agency to Enterprise: Rethinking University Trajectory,” at 3:30 p.m. April 19 in Ashurst.