In a day of unusual protests at UVa, a board holds its ground, an ousted president defends her philosophy -- and differences illustrate debate about how speedily a great university should change, and who should decide how it does so. Divided board picks interim president after meeting of almost 12 hours.
Income and wealth inequality in the United States, which has become even more pronounced since 1967, continues to interfere with the national need for an increasingly sophisticated and skilled workforce and citizenry. Federal financial assistance to financially needy college students is a rational response to this recognized social and economic inequality. About 30 years ago, in ways clearly demonstrated by Tom Mortenson in ”How to Limit Opportunity for Higher Education 1980 – 2011,” federal and state policy shifts placed an increasing share of the cost of higher education on students and their families, turning higher education into a commodity provided to those who could pay. Primarily as a consequence of these policies and the associated spiraling costs of attending college, the growth in the portion of our population with a college degree has been slow, increasing from 17 to 30 percent over the past 30 years. Strikingly, the gains were made primarily by those from the wealthiest backgrounds (18 percent increase) in contrast to a small 4 percent growth, over the same 30 years, for those in the lowest socioeconomic quartile.
Globally, as various analyses show, while many countries are making solid progress in educating their populations, the United States is losing ground, slipping from first to 12th among 36 developed countries in percent of the population with a degree. Although American students from the upper quartile of the national income distribution can continue to have high expectations of completing college, their success alone is not enough for our economy and society to thrive.
If we are to educate the nation to meet the current challenges of the global economy, our democratic society, and our planet, we need to use all means possible to educate the largest number of people possible. This will require increased financial assistance for low- and moderate-income students. Federal and state support for education is the single most rational investment we can make in our future. Yet we continue to face threats even to the inadequate support that remains today. Some current candidates for president of the United States oppose any federal role in supporting college students.
The return on investment (tax dollars) in Pell Grants and other forms of federal assistance is currently being measured by the number of degrees produced for the number of grants given. Since data are not systematically collected, it is estimated that 30 to 50 percent of Pell recipients graduate with a bachelor’s degree in six years or an associate degree in three years.
Whatever the exact number, for some observers it is easy to conclude simplistically that the "return" is not worth the investment of tax dollars -- even at a 50 percent degree completion rate -- because those who receive Pell Grants aren’t measuring up and therefore Pell funds must be reduced. Interestingly, there is no national discussion about the effectiveness (or not) of tax credits for college tuition, which benefit those with higher incomes. And merit aid by institutions of course helps the wealthier and leaves less need-based aid.
Although finances are often among the primary reasons for student dropouts or stopouts before degree completion, higher education cannot avoid its share of the responsibility. We cannot evade blame for our own inability to innovate and respond to the students in our colleges and universities by simply pointing to their lack of financing and lack of academic preparation for higher education. We college and university administrators and faculty need to own this issue. We need to own the overall 56 percent graduation rate for all those who enroll in college -- keeping in mind that graduation rates correlate perfectly with family income level. In 2009, the bachelor’s degree completion rates for those who enrolled in a college or university were 19.9 percent for those from the lowest income quartile, 28.2 percent for the second quartile, 51.4 percent for those from the third quartile and 97.9 percent for those from the top quartile. (Mortenson “Family Income and Educational Attainment 1970 to 2009”).
These data make clear that the crisis in higher education completion rates in the United States is really a crisis of completion for this who are not wealthy.
Copious data, like Mortenson’s cited above, indicate that a caste-like education system exists in America. The economic group you are born into is the best predictor of your access to and completion of a college degree. This should be unacceptable to a democracy. It should be unacceptable to higher education. How can we feel good about being part of an enterprise in human development that solidly succeeds only with wealthy people?
Instead of asking what’s wrong with the students who don’t complete a college education, we need to admit that something is wrong with the educational experience offered to almost half of the students who actually enroll. What is the matter with the way we are educating in the 21st century that results in these low success rates for those that we enroll? Only if you come from the highest income quartile (over $100,000) can we feel comfortable that you will be a “good fit” and continue on the path of intellectual and social development that will lead to the awarding of a college degree.
Is it not the responsibility of educators to address this caste-like education system and not leave the statistics for policy makers to use as justification for eliminating financial support for those who need it? Pell Grants are currently being defined as a failure based on the graduation rates of those who receive them. Implicit in the condemnation is a suggestion that the recipients of Pell Grants are not “college material” and so they fail to complete college. But while Pell Grants are necessary, they are not sufficient: Pell Grants are the means to assist in access and persistence; they are not sufficient on their own to get to the desired ends.
If Pell Grants are to succeed, then institutions must recognize their responsibility to craft learning environments for the 21st century --- collaborative learning environments that engage the whole student as well as the whole campus in learning. If we are serious about changing graduation outcomes, all current systems and processes, that constitute the way we do business, need to be reexamined putting at the center a student who may not have been on a path to college since birth and who must integrate financial and perhaps familial responsibilities into their life as a student. Rather than having this reality be the cause of attrition, how can higher education be reshaped to be inclusive of these full lives? How do recruitment, student life, financial aid, the president’s office, advising, the athletic program, learning inside and outside of the classroom reshape themselves to better meet students where they are rather than where they might be if they came from more privileged backgrounds? Those in higher education are often called upon to apply their wisdom and creativity to finding solutions and improving outcomes that benefit all of us. Educational inequality, particularly as it resides right within the academy, is such a challenge.
The question of financing students and financing the institutions who serve them should be addressed collectively as well: How can costs be reduced by more institutional collaboration and less duplication of services? The demographics of those who earn their living in the academy and are responsible for the values and processes of higher education differ from those who we most need to increase their success in the academy. Yet it is exactly those who are now underrepresented in higher education -- those from low-income backgrounds, who are likely to be the first in their families to attend college, and who are likely to be from communities of color and from rural America; those who may well be the recipients of state and federal assistance -- who are the 21st-century Americans who must take their rightful places in higher education, in our economy and our civil society.
Without them, America will continue to lag behind on the global economic, political and cultural stage. All of these areas are dependent on an educated population that can create far less inequality than we seem willing to accept today. Without them, we are giving up on the power of our country to further evolve the reality of democracy as an inclusive model of how people can progress. Instead, we are accepting increasing inequality and division among people on all measures that matter.
What is the purpose of the 3000+ institutions of higher education in our country if not to meet these students where they are and engage with them in the process of their intellectual growth? And yes, I’ve been in the classroom and know how hard it is. It is extra hard if you can’t take learning outside of the classroom; if you can’t shed the mantle of your own Ph.D. and admit there is much you can learn from your students and from other educators on campus; if you can’t penetrate the elitist boundary between “student life” and “academics”; if the future of your job depends on enrolling “full pay” students and achieving high rankings in U.S. News & World Report; if you see other colleges as competitors for those students and those rankings; if you are forced to function narrowly within the hierarchy of your university and the hierarchy of higher education.
Educators have the capacity as well as the responsibility to discuss, imagine and ask for the changes that are necessary for education in the 21st century. Instead of measuring the “return on Pell,” we should be measuring the success of individual colleges and universities in adding value to our society by producing graduates from among those who have been and remain underrepresented. It’s a challenge that has been addressed by conferences, studies, books, and reports. But where are the regional and national standards to hold colleges and universities accountable for helping the country meet a critical need -- more college- educated citizens from all income backgrounds?
Those of us who have made both education and increasing social justice our life's work have a responsibility to do the work that needs to be done. It starts with being willing to change in order to help transform.
Gloria Nemerowicz, formerly the president of Pine Manor College, is founder and president of the Yes We Must Coalition.
How is it possible for instructors in the liberal arts to teach most of the undergraduate classes in the typical institution and still feel like second-class citizens? Maybe that’s the source of the problem — teaching general education to all those majors in other colleges of a comprehensive university.
Liberal arts are important, particularly because they instill critical thinking across the disciplines. General education — cornerstone courses in English composition, economics, history, modern languages, philosophy, psychology and sociology — is an essential part of the college and university experience.
However, the aim here is not to tout the humanities and social sciences but to approach the issue of second-class citizenry from a curricular standpoint so that institutions realize the cost of general education and the toll it takes on low-paid colleagues, with little demand after graduation for their majors, including ones with advanced degrees.
In a 2007 piece about low salaries for history professors, Stanley Katz, president emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies questioned whether (a) universities were "systematically discriminating against the humanities in setting compensation" and (b) the humanities were "a throwaway part of the faculty and curriculum, to be less valued than income-producing ideas and behaviors?"
We keep telling young Americans that a bachelor's degree in history is as valuable as, say, a chemical engineering degree — but it's just not true anymore. All degrees are not created equal. And if we — parents, educators, entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders — maintain this narrow-minded approach, then we are not just failing young indebted Americans and their families. We are harming the long-term vitality of our economy.
Last year the financial news outlet 24/7 Wall St. reported the best and worst college degrees, defining both best and worst by average salaries upon graduation. Predictably, the "best" majors in ascending order were "Physical and Related Sciences," "Computers, Mathematics and Statistics" and "Engineering," with annual salaries ranging from $80-91K. On the bottom in descending order were "Literature and Languages," "Liberal Arts and History," "Psychology" and "Visual and Performing Arts," with salaries from $50-58K.
The duties of liberal arts deans are more complex than those of any other university officer, including the president. They are tasked not only with overseeing a complex unit often the size of a regional university at flagship institutions; they also must rely on a budget model that rewards the number of classes and non-majors that they teach — rather than the popularity of their own majors — so that basic education can be vended to the masses.
At public research universities, this also requires huge graduate programs and ever larger classes. Thus, there is little incentive for liberal arts departments to focus on enrollment, recruitment and retention of their own majors.
Of course decreases in enrollment bring repercussions, as we shall see later.
To fulfill their mission, liberal arts deans have to ensure that their professors do not feel like second-class citizens, especially when it comes to curriculums. After all, faculty members own the curriculums and those in the liberal arts should be free to innovate and experiment with new courses just as their counterparts do in more specialized professional and technical colleges.
Sooner or later, however, the astute dean realizes that you can generally educate other majors only if you restrict curricular growth in the humanities and social sciences because the typical budget model will not allow you to teach non-majors and expand your degree programs.
At that point, most liberal arts deans fathom what they have gotten themselves into as they try to manage departments as diverse as African-American studies, anthropology, communication studies, creative writing, economics, English, French, German, journalism, Latino/a studies, music, Native American studies, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, sociology, Southeast Asian studies, Spanish, speech, technical writing, theater, and women’s studies. Add to that the advising office, the language lab, the multicultural center, the multimedia center, the writing center, the student newspaper and television station, and the multiple emphases, sequences, options, tracks and degrees associated with each of the above disciplines.
Unluckier deans also oversee colleges of liberal arts and sciences. So now add basic courses for all students in astronomy, biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics, each requiring adjuncts, support staff and assistants in addition to lab space for the entire institution.
The most unlucky liberal arts deans also are asked to house and advise all undecided majors, taking responsibility for what should be a university college. Now add assessment, recruitment and retention to the position responsibility statement.
Just as salaries in the humanities and social sciences lag behind others, liberal arts deans also typically earn less than their counterparts in other colleges. According to the 2012 survey of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, the average salary of liberal arts deans at doctoral institutions is $180,000, thousands below that of counterparts in agriculture; business; computer and information sciences; engineering; and veterinary medicine.
Small wonder, then, that liberal arts managers last only about 4-5 years in their positions while university presidents enjoy an average 8.7 years’ tenure, according to a study by the American Council on Education.
An article by Susan Resneck Pierce cites that study, emphasizing the exhaustive list of duties assigned to the dean of liberal arts and sciences at Lewis & Clark College, where she once served as academic vice president. The list required 216 words, condensed here to 52:
Inspiring leadership, progressive management, promotion of excellent teaching and research, development of external partnerships, articulation of institutional goals for growth, side-by-side fund-raising with the president, compelling visions to attract a wide array of donors, astute financial management skills, and leveraging of budgetary systems to enable long-term strategic planning.
Finally, the dean was expected to develop "the financial resources necessary" for the college to support the above aspirations.
Pierce concluded that these and "a myriad of additional reasons" explain why liberal arts managers usually are short-timers.
To teach all those majors in other colleges, armies of graduate teaching assistants are needed. That would be fine, except there are few jobs for many of those students once they earn advanced degrees. If you consider supply and demand, you quickly come to the conclusion that teaching assistants in the humanities and social sciences are needed from a job market perspective only while earning degrees, not afterward.
It gets worse. As professors in the liberal arts create new and narrower courses, programs and degrees, they must rely on adjuncts, those low-paid master teachers who take over classes that graduate students can’t and/or professors won’t do. Adjuncts, the real second-class citizens, have large teaching loads because so many are needed to cover curricular expansion.
All this worked out in the past before business-driven budget models were introduced, based on demand for a major, and before legislatures tightened appropriations. Add a recession to the mix and a mandate or two, as in this report by the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices, recommending lawmakers persuade colleges “to move beyond their traditional emphasis on a broad liberal-arts education to thinking more about skills for specific jobs.”
The result? When economic benchmarks are used, the humanities and social sciences are viewed as dispensable.
Often they become targets during reorganization when institutions eliminate departments and degrees because insufficient attention has been given to such considerations as curricular glut and declining levels of enrollment, recruitment, retention and placement rates. Other less controversial strategies can lighten the load of liberal arts management and create an even playing field for the professoriate.
Work with the dean. Faculty can streamline curriculums, ending sequences and eliminating most prerequisites so students advance more quickly in degree programs. Units can require lower and upper core courses on vital topics with all other classes as electives, rotating them every other year rather than offering them every semester. Professors should help with recruitment of students, increasing undergraduate enrollment to ensure that programs are viable. Faculty advising is essential in retention and placement efforts. Departments can require undergraduate plans of study so their students can finish degrees in four or fewer years and then promote graduation rates to build enrollment.
Consolidate departments. If faculty members fail to work with the dean, or if the budgetary situation warrants, it is preferable to consolidate departments and degrees instead of eliminating them. Rather than underwrite numerous academic units, administrations can combine them into schools of humanities and social sciences, thereby honoring tenure of professors. For instance, related academic units — ones that deal with society, say, such as cultural anthropology, political science and sociology — would combine within a collective structure requiring fewer chairs and support staff. Curricular streamlining is essential now, with cornerstone courses across disciplines and specializations in each major. Similar consolidation can be done with all or some of such humanities as history, English, modern languages, philosophy and religion.
Recreate university college. If your institution lacks a university college, create one for undeclared majors and locate support centers and laboratories there, along with reassigning to the new dean all responsibility for general education. If your institution has a university college, recreate it to handle general education and remove those responsibilities from colleges of liberal arts and sciences. Pay adjuncts well to teach those courses in the excellent tradition of letters. This will go a long way toward eliminating or reducing need for large graduate programs for which there is little demand after graduation. Over time, without graduate assistants, curricular offerings will decrease because someone has to teach all those courses. Faculty numbers and support staff can be adjusted to meet actual interest in the major, with increased research and grant expectations for continuing professors.
Reassign responsibility. Faculty senates can identify general education themes in the arts, communication, ethics, language, natural sciences, and society and then require deans of other colleges to provide them within their own existing curriculums. For instance, a philosophy requirement can be tailored for each college, from "Ethics and Engineering" to "Veterinary Medical Ethics.” Composition classes can focus on topics associated with each college, too, such as issues in agronomy, education, business and so forth. Granted, faculty senates would have to guard against program duplication, restricting these thematic areas only to general education, but deans of other colleges would relieve some of the burden from the liberal arts, again providing that even playing field so that graduate programs meet demand and all professors have similar teaching loads and research expectations.
The root of second-class citizenry is easy to discern. Liberal arts colleges are expected to provide two things while other colleges are not: their own pedagogies plus general education. There may be other venues to resolve this dilemma, but denigrating the liberal arts and their essential basic courses is not one of them. Rather, we should seek curricular and organizational alternatives to revitalize higher education, reducing budgets and with it, student debt, instilling new respect for the rigors, cost and value of general education and recruiting a new class of scholars with research and grant expectations as well as instructional ones.
Michael Bugeja is chair of the Contemporary Leadership Committee of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication.