Colleges need to accept that the "social compact" between higher education and government that led to a century of growth for American higher education is dead and will not return, Larry R. Faulkner said Sunday.
Faulkner, president of the University of Texas at Austin, delivered that message to hundreds of college presidents gathered in Washington for the annual meeting of the American Council on Education. Bemoaning the death of the compact is not of itself earth-shattering -- academics have been complaining along those lines for some time.
But such discussion typically places the blame on government and focuses on restoring the compact. Faulkner assigned some of the blame to colleges, said that they needed to focus on a different kind of relationship with government, and focused on the tasks higher education could accomplish.
He outlined five goals for colleges to build a new relationship with government and the public:
- Rebuild a "broad understanding" of what colleges actually do. Faulkner said that most people focus only on one mission of higher education, depending on their perspective. For state legislators and most parents, that mission is undergraduate education. For federal officials, that mission is research. For others, it is to provide sporting events. The reality, Faulkner said, is that higher education's power "lies in the total of what we do," but the ignorance of those many missions results in many people criticizing colleges as "being afflicted with a lack of focus." It is in stepping back and examining higher education's many missions, Faulkner said, that its "public good" becomes clear, so talking about all those missions is crucial.
- "Restore trust" that colleges serve students well. Faulkner said that colleges focus too much of their time communicating with lawmakers about money, and not enough about issues of quality. "We need to sponsor accountability, and not just accept it grudgingly," he said.
- Make middle class families feel that college is affordable. Faulkner appeared to anticipate critics when he said that he was aware that most public surveys find that the public overestimates college costs. Colleges shouldn't take comfort in that fact, he said. "There is plenty to be concerned about" with regard to the middle class. He said that public colleges need to negotiate with state lawmakers about an appropriate percentage of median family income that should cover tuition costs. That percentage might differ for different kinds of institutions, he said, but it would provide some stabililty and logic to tuition.
- Show low income students and their families that college is both "essential" and "reachable." Faulkner said that there is a "dreadful waste of talent" right now because too many students who could benefit from college never enroll. Too many students "do not believe it is possible," he said, and much of the problem isn't the students, but their families. He called on colleges to focus specifically on the families and the "attitude of impossibility."
- Limit the rate of growth in college costs. Currently, college costs are growing by about 4.5 percent a year, he noted, a faster growth rate than the U.S. economy. That growth rate "cannot be sustained indefinitely."
Faulkner said that he hoped that together, these approaches would restore the idea that higher education is a public good and not just a "private benefit."
Before he outlined his agenda, Faulkner discussed many of the symptoms of the collapse of earlier understandings between government and higher education. He noted a variety of factors, such as declines in relative levels of state support, erosions in public trust for institutions generally, "huge" increases in tuition rates, and the fact that "mean spirited remarks by office holders, once rare, have become common."
Faulkner repeatedly noted, however, that colleges share responsibility for some of these conditions. For instance, he said that the general public's sense of state colleges was traditionally a populist one, with the expectation that -- with a few exceptions -- institutions would be open to most students. These days, however, many public colleges have highly competitive admissions standards, leading many people to see them "as irrelevant" to their families.
Likewise, he said that while many public institutions -- especially research universities -- embraced the growth in federal research support in the post-World War II era, few paid attention to how that support changed the nature of their faculty members.
In this environment, he said, colleges end up in frequent fights with lawmakers, winning some battles and losing others. But he said this was like "mud wrestling with your family treasures in your shirt pocket" -- you may well win, but you'll get dirty and put valuable things at risk.