The details of accreditation are so arcane and complex that the entire topic is confusing and controversial throughout all of education. When we're immersed in the details of accreditation, it's often exceedingly difficult to see the forest for all the trees. But at the core, accreditation is a very simple concept: Accreditation is a process of self-regulation that exists solely to serve the public interest.
When I say "public interest" I mean the interests of three overlapping but identifiably distinct groups:
The interests of members of the general public in their own personal health, safety, and economic well-being.
The interests of government and elected officials at all levels in assuring wise and effective use of taxpayer dollars.
The consumer interests of students and their families in "getting what they pay for" -- certifications in their chosen fields that genuinely qualify them for employment and for practicing their professions competently and honestly.
Saying that a particular program or degree or institution is "accredited" should and must convey to these publics strong assurance that it meets acceptable minimum standards of quality and integrity.
Aside from the public interest, what other interests are there? Well, there are the interests of the accredited institutions, the interests of existing professional practitioners and their industry groups, and the interests of the accrediting organizations themselves. There is no automatic assurance that these latter interests are always and everywhere consistent with the public interest, so self-regulation (accreditation) necessarily involves consistent and vigilant management of this inherent conflict of interest. It is an inherent conflict because the general public, the government, and the students do not have the technical expertise to set curricular and other educational standards and monitor compliance.
I assume it is generally agreed that it is inconceivable to have anyone other than medical professionals defining the necessary elements and performance standards of medical education. Does the American Medical Association do a good job of protecting the public from fraud and incompetence? Yes, for the most part. But you don't need to talk to very many people to hear cynicism. It is the worst behaviors and the lowest standards of professional competence that create this cynicism, and that taints all doctors as well as the AMA. That is why our standards at the bottom or threshold level are so very important. I submit to that the bedrock principle and the highest priority for everyone involved in higher education (the institutions, the professional groups, the accrediting organizations, and those who recognize or certify the accreditors) should be and must be to manage these conflicts of interest in ways that are transparent, and that place the public interest ahead of our own several self-interests.
If I could draw an analogy: Think about why the names Enron and WorldCom are so familiar. Publicly owned corporations must open their books to independent accounting firms that are expected to examine them and issue reports assuring the public that acceptable financial reporting and business practices are being followed, and warning the public when they are not. But there is an inherent conflict of interest in this process: The companies being audited are the customers of the accounting firms. This presents an apparent disincentive to look too closely or report too diligently lest the accounting firms lose clients to other firms who are more willing to apply loose standards. Obviously, this conflict was not well-managed by the accounting industry and, as a result, one of the world's largest and previously most respected accounting firms no longer exists, and all U.S. corporations (honest and otherwise) are saddled with an extraordinarily complex and expensive set of new government regulations.
If we don't manage our conflicts well, rest assured one or more of our publics -- the students, the government, or the public at large - will rise up and take care of it for us in ways that will be expensive, burdensome, poorly designed, and counterproductive. That would be in no one's best interest - ironically, not even in the public's best interest.
I must acknowledge that our current system of self-regulation is, by and large, working very well, just as most accounting firms and most companies are, and always have been, honest. Some of us, especially in the public sector of higher education, wonder how much more accountability we could possibly stand, and what, if any, value-added there could possibly be if more were imposed on us. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, for example, we offer 409 differently named degrees -- 136 majors at the bachelor's level, 156 at the master's level, 109 at the Ph.D. level, and 8 professional degrees, 7 of which carry the term "doctor," a point I will return to later.
By Board of Regents policy, every one of our degree programs gets a thorough review at least every 10 years, so we are conducting about 40 program reviews every year, and one full cycle of reviews involves just about every academic official on campus. These internal reviews carry negligible out-of-pocket cost, but conservatively consume about 20 FTE of people's time annually. We are also required by the legislature to report annually on a long list of performance indicators that includes things like time-to-degree, access and affordability, and graduation rates, among many other things. In addition, about 100 of our degree programs are accredited by 32 different special accreditors and, of course, the entire university is accredited by the North Central Association. One complete cycle of these accreditations costs about $5,000,000 and the equivalent of 35 FTE of year-round effort. (Annualized, it is about $850,000 and 6 FTE).
I mention the costs, not to complain about these reviews as expensive burdens, but to emphasize that we put a great deal of real money and real effort into self-examination and accountability. Far from being a burden, accreditation and self-study reviews form the central core of our institutional strategic planning and quality improvement programs. The major two-year-long self-study we do for our North Central accreditation, in particular, forms the entire basis for the campus strategic plan, priorities, goals, and quality improvements we adopt for the next 10-year period. As such, it is the most important and valuable exercise we undertake in any 10-year period, and we honestly and sincerely attribute most of the improvements we've made in recent decades to things learned in these intensive self-studies. I think all public universities and established private universities could give similar testimony. Having said all this, let me turn, now, to some of the reasons for the growing public cries for better accountability, and some of the problems I think we need to address in our system of self-regulation:
1. Even in the best-performing universities, there is still considerable room for improvement. To mention one high-visibility area, I think it is nothing short of scandalous that, in 2006, the average six-year graduation rate is only around 50 percent nationwide. Either we are doing a disservice to under-prepared or unqualified students by admitting them in the first place, or we are failing perfectly capable students by not giving them the advising and other help they need to graduate. Either way, we are wasting money and human capital inexcusably. Even at universities like mine, where the graduation rate is now 80 percent, if there are peer institutions doing better (and there are), then 80 percent should be considered unacceptably low.
Now, if we were pressured to increase that number quickly to 85 percent or 90 percent and threatened with severe sanctions for failing to do so, we could meet any established goal by lowering our graduation standards, or by fudging our numbers in plausibly defensible ways, or by doing any number of other things that would satisfy our self-interest but fail the public-interest test. Who's to stop us? Well, I submit these are exactly the sorts of conflicts of interest the accrediting organizations should be expected to monitor and resolve in the public interest. The public interest is in a better-educated public, not in superficial compliance with some particular standard. The public relies on accreditors to keep their eye on the right ball. More generally, accrediting organizations are in an excellent -- maybe even unique -- position to identify best practices and transfer them from one colleges to another, improving our entire system of higher education.
2. A second set of problems involves accreditation of substandard or even fraudulent schools and programs. Newspapers have been full of reports of such institutions, many of them operating for years, without necessarily providing a good education to their students. For years, I have listened to the complaints of our deans of education, business, allied health, and some other areas, that "fly-by-night" schools or "motel schools" were competing unfairly with them or giving absurd amounts of credit for impossibly small amounts of work or academic content.
I must admit that I usually dismissed these complaints lightly, telling them they should pay more attention to the quality and value of their own programs, and let free enterprise and competition drive out the low value products. I felt they (our deans) had a conflict of interest, and they wanted someone to enforce a monopoly for them. More recently I have concluded that our deans were, in fact, the only ones paying attention to the public interest. Our schools of education (not the motel schools) are the ones being held responsible for the quality of our K-12 teachers, and they are tired of being told they are turning out an inferior product when shabby but accredited programs are an increasingly large part of the problem. The public school teachers, themselves, have a conflict of interest: They are required to earn continuing education credits from accredited programs, and it is in their interest to satisfy this requirement at the lowest possible cost to themselves. So the quality of the cheapest or quickest credit is of great importance in the public interest, and the only safeguard for that public interest is the vigilance of the accrediting organizations. I lay this problem squarely at the feet of the U.S. Department of Education, the state departments of public instruction, and the education accreditors. They all need to clean up their acts in the public interest.
3. Cost of education. There is currently lots of hand-wringing on the topic of the "cost of education." What is really meant by the hand-wringers is not the cost of education, but the price of education to the students and their families: the fact that tuition rates are inflating at a far faster rate than the CPI. I've made a very important distinction here: the distinction between cost and price. If education were a manufactured product sold to a homogeneous class of customers in a competitive market with multiple providers, then it would be reasonable to assume there is a simple cause-and-effect relationship between cost and price. But that is not the case.
Very few students pay tuition that covers the actual cost of their education. Most students pay far less than the true cost, and some pay far more. In aggregate, the difference is made up by donors (endowment income) at private colleges, and by state taxpayers at public institutions. Since public colleges enroll more than 75 percent of all students, the overall picture -- the price of higher education to students and their parents -- is heavily influenced by what's going on in the public sector, and the picture is not pretty.
In virtually every state in the country, governors and legislators are providing a smaller share of operating funds for higher education than they used to, and partially offsetting the decrease by super-inflationary increases in tuition. They tell themselves this is not hurting higher education because, after all, the resulting tuitions are still much lower than the advertised tuitions at comparable private colleges, so their public institutions are still a "bargain." This view represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the "private model." Private institutions do not substitute high tuition for state support. They substitute gifts and endowment income for state support, and discount their tuitions to the tune of nearly 50 percent on the average.
There is a very good reason why there are so few large private universities: It is because very few schools can amass the endowments required to make the private model work. Of the 100 largest postsecondary schools in the country, 92 are public, and ALL of the 25 largest institutions are public. There is no way the private model can be scaled up to educate a significant fraction of all the high school graduates in the country. Substituting privately financed endowments for public taxpayer support nationwide would require aggregate endowments totaling $1.3 trillion, or about six times more than the total of all current endowments of public and private colleges and universities in the country. This simply is not going to happen.
So, to the extent that states are pursuing an impossible dream, they are endangering the health and future of our entire system of higher education. Whose responsibility is it to red-flag this situation? Who is responsible for looking out for the overall health of a large, decentralized, diverse public/private system of higher education? When public (or, for that matter, private) colleges point out the hazards of our current trends, they are vulnerable to charges of self-interest. We are accused of waste and inefficiency, and told that we simply need to tighten our belts and become more businesslike.
I don't know of a single university president who wouldn't welcome additional suggestions for genuinely useful efficiencies that have not already been implemented. Is there a legitimate role here for the U.S. Department of Education and the accrediting organizations? To the extent that accrediting organizations take this seriously and use their vast databases of practices and indicators to disseminate best practices nationwide, we would all be better off. Accreditors should be applauding institutions that are on the leading edge of efficiency, and helping, warning, and eventually penalizing waste and inefficiency, all in the spirit of protecting the public interest. Instead, I'm afraid many accreditors are pushing us in entirely different directions.
4. Another category of problem area is what I will call "protectionism." I have already said there is an inherent conflict of interest in that professional experts must be relied upon to define and control access to the professions. This means that the special accreditors have a special burden to demonstrate that their accreditation standards serve the best interests of the public, and not just the interests of the accredited programs or the profession. Chancellors and provosts get more complaints and see more abuses in this area of accreditation than any other. I will start with a hypothetical and then mention only a small sampling of examples.
In Wisconsin, we are under public and legislative pressure to produce more college-educated citizens -- more bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees. Suppose the University of Wisconsin announced next week that any students who completed our 60 credits, or two years, of general education would be awarded a bachelor's degree; that completing two more years in a major would result in a master's degree; and that one year of graduate school would produce a degree entitling the graduate to be called "doctor."
I hope and assume this would be met with outrage. I hope and assume it would result in an uproar among alumni who felt their degrees had been cheapened. I hope and assume it would result in legislative intervention. I even hope and assume it would result in loss of all our accreditations.
That's an extreme example, and most of what I hope and assume would probably happen. But we are already seeing this very phenomenon of degree inflation, and it is being caused by the professions themselves! This is particularly problematic in the health professions, where, it seems, everyone wants to be called "doctor." I have no problem whatsoever with the professional societies and their accreditors telling us what a graduate must know to practice safely and professionally. I have a big problem, though, when they hand us what amounts to a master's-level curriculum and tell us the resulting degree must be called a "doctor of X." This is a transparently self-interested ploy by the profession, and I see no conceivable argument that it is in the public interest. All it does is further confuse an already confusing array of degree names and titles, to no useful purpose.
I asked some of my fellow presidents and chancellors to send me their favorite examples, and I got far too many to include here. Interestingly, and tellingly, most people begged me to hide their institutional identity if I used their examples. I'll let you decide why they might fear being identified. Here are a few:
A business accreditor insisting that no other business-related courses may be offered by any other school or college on campus.
An allied health program at the bachelor's level (offered at a branch campus of an integrated system) that had to be discontinued because the accreditors decreed they could only offer programs at the bachelor's level if they also offered programs at the master's level at the same campus.
An architecture program that was praised for the strength and quality of its curriculum, its graduates, and its placements, and then had its accreditation period halved for a number of trivial resource items such as the sizes of their brand-new drafting tables that had been selected by their star faculty;
Some years ago, the American Bar Association was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Justice for using accreditation in repeated attempts to drive up faculty salaries in law schools.
The Committee on Institutional Cooperation (the Big Ten universities plus the University of Chicago) publishes a brochure suggesting reasonable standards for special accreditation. The suggested standards are common-sense things that any reasonable person would agree protect the public interest while not unreasonably constraining the institution or holding accredited status hostage for increased resources or status when the existing resources and status are clearly adequate. They focus on results rather than inputs or pathways to those results. Similar guidelines have been adopted by other associations of universities.
So, when I was provost, I routinely handed copies of that brochure to site-visit teams when they started their reviews, saying "Please don't tell me this program needs more faculty, more space, higher salaries, or a different reporting line. Just tell me whether or not they are doing a good job and producing exemplary graduates." Inevitably, or at least more often than not, at the exit interview, I heard "This program has a decades-long record of outstanding performance and exemplary graduates, but their continued accreditation is endangered unless they get (some combination of) more faculty, higher salaries, a higher S&E budget, larger offices, more space in general, greater independence, a different reporting line, their own library, a very specific degree for the chair or director, tenure for (whomever), ... etc." Often, the program was put on some form of notice such as interim review with a return visit to check for such improvements.
Aside: It is perfectly natural for the faculty members of site-visit teams to feel a special bond with the colleagues whose program they are evaluating. It is natural for the evaluators to want to "help" these colleagues in what they perceive as the zero-sum resource struggles that occur everywhere. It is also natural for them to want to enhance the status of programs associated with their field. But, resource considerations should be irrelevant to accreditation status unless the resources being provided are demonstrably below the minimum needed to deliver high-quality education and outcomes. Similarly, "status" considerations are out of place unless the current status or reporting line demonstrably harms the students or the public interest. It is the responsibility of the professional staffs of accrediting organizations to provide faculty evaluators with warnings about conflict of interest and guidelines on ethical conduct of the evaluation.
Let me end with one of the most egregious examples I have yet encountered, and a current one from the University of Wisconsin. Our medical school spent more than a year in serious introspection and strategic planning, with special attention on its role in addressing the national crisis in health care costs. What topic could be more front-and-center in the public interest? The medical school faculty and administration concluded (among other things) that it is in the public interest for medical schools to pay more attention to public health and prevention, and try to reduce the need for acute and expensive interventions after preventable illnesses have occurred. To signal this changed emphasis, they voted to change the name of the school from "The School of Medicine" to "The School of Medicine and Public Health." They simultaneously developed a formal public health track for their M.D. curriculum.
I am told that we cannot have this school accredited as a school of public health because the accreditation organization insists that schools of public health must be headed by deans who are distinct from, and at the same organizational level as, deans of medicine. In particular, deans of public health may not be subordinate to, nor the same as, deans of medicine. This, despite the fact that the whole future of medicine may evolve in the direction of public health emphasis, and this may well be in the best interests of the country. Ironically, to the best of my knowledge, our current dean of medicine is the only M.D. on our faculty who holds a commission as an officer in the Public Health Service.
I have used some extreme examples and maybe some extreme characterizations intentionally. Often, important points of principle are best illuminated by extreme cases and examples. If there are any readers who are not offended by anything here, then I have failed. I hope everyone was offended by at least one thing. I also hope I am provably wrong about some things I've said. But, most of all, I hope to stimulate a vigorous debate on this vitally important topic.
John D. Wiley
John D. Wiley is chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. This essay is a revised version of a talk Wiley gave at the annual meeting of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation.
Competition among research universities for national ranking increasingly fuels a conflict between peer prestige and public purpose. Governors and legislators rail about public purpose, while professors and administrators rave about peer prestige. Can public research universities pursue both public purpose and peer prestige? (Can the University of Virginia meet the dual directive of its Board of Visitors to raise its proportion of economically disadvantaged students and its U.S. News & World Report ranking among national universities? ) As currently defined, achieving both goals remain an impossible dream, for public purpose is not a byproduct produced automatically while pursuing peer prestige.
Peer prestige suggests high standing in academic circles. Public purpose means serving the collective good. Defining prestige and purpose for state universities is too important to be left either to academics or the public, for each is better at defining wants than determining needs. Universities deliver both ends and means. They represent ends when discovering enduring ideas and insights and means when these discoveries spur innovations and inventions that improve our lives. Academics and the public must agree on an agenda that embraces both educational and societal needs.
Some leaders of government and business, and increasingly even presidents and professors, would leave prestige and purpose to the market. But market demands and the public good are not synonymous. Market demands are often short term and respond to individual wants, but public goods are usually long term and reflect collective needs. For example, markets -- through the salaries they generate -- favor physicians in the latest medical specialties, though society needs more primary care doctors and nurses. Markets encourage MBA research scientists, while society desperately needs science and math teachers. Rising markets often mark momentary fads, but public universities must continue critical programs that society needs. The nature of markets is to abandon the old in favor of the new, but higher education while discovering the new, should look for the lasting things in life.
Peer prestige represents the resource and reputation model of excellence, with its trinity of student selectivity, rich resources, and faculty reputations. That model relies mostly on inputs of students, resources, and professors and says little about the public purpose of the quality and quantity of graduates or the contribution of research and services to states and society. It depends more on the resources received than the results achieved and treats campuses like computers as mostly matters of good in, good out.
The resource and reputation model dominates the national rankings of colleges and universities. U.S. News & World Report devotes three quarters of its rating for national universities to this model: peer assessment (25 percent), faculty resources (20 percent), student selectivity (15 percent), spending per student (10 percent), and alumni giving (5 percent). A measure called retention does allocate 20 percent of the total score Unfortunately, on many campuses, retention results reflect admission standards more than improved performance. A criterion on graduation rate performance does control for student preparation and institutional resources, but it receives just 5 percent of the total score.
Public purpose is the defining characteristic of all public universities, but what does it entail? A review of the external demands on state universities reveals a long and daunting list. They must become more accessible to economically and educationally disadvantaged students and enroll a racially diverse student body without setting targets. Their tuition must remain affordable despite declines in state support and inadequate need-based financial aid. They should graduate the great majority of their students -- most of them in four years -- and demonstrate their growth in knowledge and skills from entry to exit. Public universities should actively assist the reform of public schools and produce graduates in critical fields who are prepared mentally and ethically for work and citizenship. Their research and public service should spur the economic growth and civic development of their states and communities.
The answer to the current conflict is not to abandon either peer prestige or public purpose but to broaden the first to cover the public mandate of state universities and to narrow the second to public needs, not wants. State universities should stop competing with private universities on student selectivity. Private universities can become as selective as their markets allow. The mandate of accessibility denies that choice to public universities. State universities should admit a range of undergraduates that past experience shows can succeed on their campuses. Provider-driven institutions will use all of the admission spots to raise their SAT or ACT scores, but public research universities should use some of those places to correct poor preparation that stems from economic disadvantage. Our nation has a growing gap between the prosperous and poor. Great public universities should close rather than reinforce that undemocratic divide. Is the price of a few points on entrance scores at public universities worth the social cost to American society? Can public research universities remain relevant while leaving the issue of equality and accessibility to community colleges and regional universities? Public research universities should also expand the criteria of prestige by assessing the value added of the knowledge and skills acquired by graduates and the impact of research and service on states and society. Surely, greatness for universities should depend more on what they produce than on what they receive.
All great universities must have a global reach, but public research universities, such as Berkeley, Michigan, and Virginia should also address state and regional problems. They must act locally as well as reach globally. Distance enhances peer prestige, but public purpose requires regional impact.
The time has come for state universities to break the hold of private universities on the hallmark of prestige. Something is radically wrong with college ratings -- such as U.S. News -- that rank 20 private schools before getting to Berkeley. The answer is not for Berkeley to become more like Harvard, but to be an even better Berkeley in fulfilling its public purpose. State university leaders publicly complain about the criteria of the rankings, but privately submit to its measures to raise their ratings.
The National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges should appoint a Commission to develop criteria that reflect both academic quality and public purpose. Its membership should include business, civic, public school, and government leaders, as well as those from higher education. The areas for assessment should adopt those used by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in its biennial report, Measuring UP. That Report grades higher education in each state by measures in the categories of preparation, participation, affordability, completion, benefits, and learning. The national Commission should develop appropriate measures with trends over time in each of these categories for public research universities. Other groups should propose similar indicators for comprehensive universities and community colleges.
The category of preparation might include a measure on the percent of first year students with rigorous college preparatory courses in high school. Such a measure would stimulate school reform rather than stress student selectivity. Another indicator could include the number and quality of teachers graduated, especially in critical fields, such as science, math, and English as a second language. Participation should include the percent of college age students in the state enrolled by race, gender, and income. Trends in transfers from community colleges could check on their transition to baccalaureate degrees at the best public universities. Affordability might include a measure showing tuition and fees, minus financial aid, as a percent of state median family income. Completion should compare actual with predicted graduation rates based on student preparation and aptitude. Benefits might cover degrees granted in critical fields, as well the usual sponsored research and faculty publications. Student learning represents a challenging area. As a start, it might include evidence from surveys such as the National Survey on Student Engagement and alumni surveys that probe the value added in student learning. The categories proposed above are critical; the measures, merely examples.
The soul of state universities is surely worth saving. The current conflict pits peer prestige against public purpose. The time has come to design a new rating system for public research universities. That rating should rely less on what they receive in resources and more on their results in creating assessable universities as great in undergraduate education and public engagement as they are in faculty research. Saving the soul of public universities means raising their prestige to a higher standard—one that includes their public purpose.
Joseph C. Burke
Joseph C. Burke is director of the Higher Education Program at the Rockefeller Institute of Government of the State University of New York. He is editor and co-author of Fixing the Fragmented University: Decentralization with Direction, to be published this year by Anker Press.Â
The current controversies over admission practices of elite public and private institutions illustrate what happens when we allow ourselves to fight about the wrong things. This lack of critical thinking begins with a false premise and continues with an attack on institutions that do not conform to the false premise. Sometimes, rather than pointing out the false premise, institutions and their leaders react defensively as if the false premise were correct. Both attacker and respondent in this circumstance fail the test of critical thinking.
The error is usually at the beginning. Someone ( most recently the Education Trust, but the list of commentators who have taken the same tack is long) asserts that elite public universities should be admitting as many poor people as there are in the population of high school graduates in their states. Having asserted this erroneous notion, they compile data (that may also be flawed) using often unreliable methodologies, and issue a manifesto damning elite public universities because they don’t meet the original false premise. Rather than pointing out the error, some elite universities, sensing a politically correct risk, counter with data showing how much they do to recruit and subsidize the poor people who want to come to their university.
All this is not very helpful in addressing issues of access and affordability. We do indeed have to pay attention to the possibility that some graduates of high school who have the preparation and interest might be priced out of an opportunity to acquire a quality higher education, either by virtue of a high net cost of attendance or by the imposition of admissions standards that less affluent students find difficult to meet. This, however, is not a problem that belongs to elite public or private universities alone but is a challenge faced by all the providers of higher education in America. To focus on elite institutions is to make some pernicious and inaccurate assumptions about all the other institutions of higher education.
If we assume that everyone should have an equal opportunityto attend an elite public or private institution (since both are heavily subsidized by taxpayers), then we must also assume that attendance at a non-elite public or private institution represents an unsatisfactory and therefore unequal outcome for a student. If the community colleges, state colleges, non-flagship state institutions, and many non-elite private colleges represent an unsatisfactory and inequitable opportunity, compared to what we call elite institutions, that would seem to require us to assume that they do a poor job of educating students; that the results of their educational efforts are second rate; and that anyone who attends such places is sure to be deficient upon graduation. This kind of thinking may reflect the snobbery of some elite groups who can’t imagine a good education coming from a campus of the California State University system, or a fine education at a combination of Greenfield Community College and Westfield State College in Massachusetts. Such an assumption also reflects a profound ignorance about the actual academic performance of the students who graduate from these “non-elite” institutions.
The notion of “elite institution” deserves some attention. We who live and work in institutions labeled elite have every reason to accept the premise that only an education in our remarkable places is worth having even if we can present little evidence to demonstrate that our elite characteristics result in higher performance after graduation. Research that attempts to demonstrate the higher value of elite compared to non-elite education seems to indicate that while some people may benefit from instruction at a small private elite college, most students do just about as well after graduation, all other things being equal, whether they go to elite or non-elite institutions.
The elite status of an institution comes from its ability to spend more money than institutions deemed “non-elite.” These expenditures do indeed make a different institution. For example, a state flagship institution may have its faculty teaching only half time, assigning the other half time to research. The student activities supported by the elite institution may be more elaborate, the residential spaces more elegant, the quality of the buildings and other facilities more impressive, the student recreation center more comprehensive, and the intercollegiate sports program more nationally visible. These amenities define elite status for undergraduates, and many assume that the amenities reflect academic quality. Students and their parents like these amenities, they ask about them when they visit campus, and they appear willing to pay a premium for the opportunity to participate in the residential life of an elite university. Still, the data that would tell us that the students really learn more and will do much better after graduation as a result of these amenities is not very persuasive.
If we figure the cost of attendance at one of these elite institutions and compare it to the cost of attending a community college and state college, near where the student lives and where the student can hold down a job, we find that the best educational bargain by far is the community college-state college combination.
When we worry about whether poor people can get access to college, some imagine that a zero cost of attendance will solve the problem. That doesn’t really work. Even when an institution pays for the tuition and fees, including room and board, for students below some income marker, these students still come up short an additional $10K to make up for the opportunity cost of living away from home and losing the income from a regular 12-month part-time or full-time job. The public cost of subsidizing elite education for all is very high for rather limited gains. And, of course, there are not enough spots in what we call elite institutions to accommodate all the deserving students of all income levels.
Because space is limited, even in elite public institutions with enrollments over 40,000, the institutions select students based on various criteria, some related to geography, some related to ethnicity, some related to academic preparation, and some related to athletic skill. It would certainly be possible to add other criteria to this list to try and achieve an equal opportunity for all students. However, the only truly “fair” admission process would do what we suggested in an earlier Reality Check: fill the class using random selection from a pool composed of all high school graduates who meet the institution’s minimum admission criteria. There is a certain simplistic charm to this notion.
What’s the great benefit, then, that the elite institutions provide? Well, they are elite and they are expensive, and they have luxuries that aren’t available at the community college or state college, or non-elite private institution. Do they do a better job of helping students who have deficient high school preparation succeed? Surely not better than the community college that specializes in serving these constituencies.
The real issue for any state is whether its total system of public higher education is effectively serving the people for whom the institutions are intended. If we believe that only elite public research institutions provide quality academic preparation and degrees, we should close the community colleges, the state colleges, and the university campuses not deemed “elite” and transfer those funds and the responsibility for serving all graduates of the state’s high schools to elite institutions and require them to expand their enrollments to accommodate all the college bound students of the state.
This solution, impossible of course, would result in each elite institution reinventing community colleges, non-elite campuses located near the communities from which the students come, and investing only a fraction of the funding available in the high priced research university environment that many people define as elite.
The failure of critical thinking about how to provide quality higher education to all citizens leads people to confuse two challenges. The first is how a state should construct a higher education system that will ensure access for all qualified and interested students. The second is how to express hostility toward politically incorrect elite institutions. The first challenge is worth worrying about; the second one is just plain silly.
We have just finished the year of the higher education critique. Beginning with the influential National Academies jeremiad, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," and leading up to December’s National Center on Education and the Economy’s call to arms, "Tough Choices or Tough Times," no fewer than six major commissions last year published recommendations for reinventing American education.
Within this blizzard of reports, higher education -- and especially public higher education -- has faced considerable criticism. Add in politicians decrying rising tuition, and editorial writers charging public universities with elitism, and education officials and policymakers can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by (often conflicting) advice.
More recent reports by the Education Trust and National Conference of State Legislatures were particularly critical of public universities, the former charging that state flagships have abandoned their historic mission of increasing social mobility for all, with the latter scolding state legislators for weak leadership and schools for lax accountability.
Last month a New York Times editorial went even further, accusing public universities of “choking off” college access to poor and minority students. The Times claimed that the “compact,” in which public universities offer broad access in exchange for taxpayer subsidies, has been “pretty much discarded.”
The Need for a Wider Angle View
The increased public attention to education is understandable given the growing nationwide anxiety over issues such as the achievement gap between white and minority students; poor science and math performance among primary and secondary students; the outsourcing of jobs to China, India, and other developing nations; and rapid increases in the cost of college.
But when assigning blame for these problems, the recent critiques may well focus too narrowly, using a telephoto lens when what is needed is a wide angle one.
Look at a few examples. As the National Conference of State Legislatures and Spellings Commission reports acknowledge, funding and financial aid mechanisms for higher education are in need of serious reform. The Manhattan Institute’s reports on high dropout rates in urban high schools have lifted the veil on a critical issue. And the National Academies report sparked a dialogue on economic competitiveness that even found voice in President Bush’s 2006 State of the Union address.
To be sure, each of these topics is important. But these critiques isolate troublesome segments of the pre-K-16 continuum rather than assessing the whole. (One exception is the National Center on Education and the Economy's report -- the most radical of the bunch -- which, among other things, calls for an overhaul of the American K-12 system along the lines of the European model of college preparation.)
The most narrowly focused is the searing Education Trust report and subsequent Times editorial that focus, by and large, on the issue of who is admitted to public flagship universities, and then how that education is financed. No doubt these are topics worthy of debate. However, singling out the admissions and financial aid practices of 50 or so flagship universities is to treat a symptom of a broader problem, not a root cause.
When students arrive at the doorstep of the University at Buffalo, or any other major university, we see the results of nearly two decades of prior experience, from families, society, and, of course, schools -- circumstances over which we currently have only minimal control. The reports, though, do not sufficiently appreciate that readiness is a precondition for success in college, and is an element of the education pipeline that actually begins in childhood. But in many urban and poor districts -- where dropout rates often top 50 percent for minority students -- the education pipeline simply is broken.
Indeed, the issue of diversity and access to higher education is a complex one, and can only be partially understood – or rectified – by looking at the end of the education pipeline. We must therefore focus on the entire spectrum of potential students' experiences that lead to the characteristics they arrive with at admissions time.
For that reason, the notion that public universities deserve most of the blame for enrolling too few students from minority and low-income backgrounds is a gross oversimplification, as well as highly misleading. Virtually every month state systems announce new financial aid, college preparation, and advising programs to help low-income families send their children to college with little or no debt.
These hardly sound like the efforts of universities that have abandoned their mission to educate a diverse cross-section of qualified students. In truth, addressing the very real problems the reports describe is a long-range and collaborative process that will occur not just in college admissions and financial aid offices, but in the pre-kindergarten classroom, and many other stops in between.
What to Do
Higher education is not without problems, nor the reports without merit. Saying there are too few graduates from minority groups and low-income families only begins to touch on broader issues of race, class, and mobility in American society. Training and retaining enough graduates in the STEM fields is a growing, if poorly understood, national concern. And students and their families are under tremendous strain to make sense of a multitude of educational offerings, finance their choice, and, ultimately, graduate within a reasonable amount of time.
In my experience, however, many leaders in higher education are working every day to find solutions to these problems. Far from a lack of desire, the failure of our education system to make faster progress stems, in large measure, from the complexity of the challenge. This is why it is imperative that any collective solutions to these problems be undergirded by a recognition that the social forces behind them are broader and more historically-rooted than the reports acknowledge.
Unlike private institutions, publics have an obligation to try to reflect society at large. Though many private colleges have made sincere efforts to become less economically elite, these institutions ultimately bear neither the public’s expectation nor the statutory responsibility to educate a broadly representative population.
Indeed, our public colleges and universities, which educate more than three-quarters of all college students nationwide, serve communities of all racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds as a fundamental part of their missions. Many public research universities, like mine, are today working diligently and creatively to increase the number of qualified minority and low-income students we educate.
For example, the Buffalo-Area Engineering Awareness for Minorities (BEAM) program in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences offers free pre-college classes to middle school and high school students who want to explore the wonders of science and technology. Since BEAM’s inception in 1982, 90 percent of its students have gone on to attend four-year colleges. Here, and elsewhere in major public universities, this hardly is a new endeavor.
But these efforts, by themselves, will lead to only incremental improvements. Success will come only when public higher education works in lock-step with primary and secondary education systems to ensure that students have the intellectual and emotional preparation for success, and the financial support to achieve it.
State and local officials therefore need to strengthen the education pipeline by supporting changes that will make the system a seamless whole rather than a series of disjointed parts. As a critical part of that strategy, public higher education must do more to help primary and secondary schools improve educational outcomes.
For example, my university is building on its years of engagement with the Buffalo Public Schools to create a strong partnership that will help students gain the education and skills needed to succeed in the 21st century economy. This partnership would include, for instance, early childhood experts sharing the latest insights on cognitive development, or addiction researchers working to break generational cycles of dependence.
Finally, states must re-commit themselves to providing the financial support necessary for public colleges and universities to thrive. At a time when America risks falling further behind other countries in educational achievement, the state share of public colleges’ budgets is in decline -- and has been so for more than three decades. If states reversed this trend it would send a clear signal to Washington that investment in higher education should be our first national economic priority.
Far from being isolated ivory towers, our public institutions of higher education are actually more relevant today than ever before. If fully embraced, and more engaged in strengthening the education pipeline, these institutions have both the potential and the intention to do far more than they already do to offer solutions to the serious issues raised in this year’s reports.
John B. Simpson
John B. Simpson is president of the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. He was a member of the recent higher education delegation to Asia led by the U.S. secretary of education.
Here’s a ray of hope to restore prestige and morale to our beleaguered flagship state universities: let’s have “A&M” stand for “Athletics & Medicine.”
It’s a sorely needed change from the archaic 19th century acronym, “Agricultural & Mechanical.” This branding will provide state universities with both a jump start and truth in advertising about their priorities. After more than a quarter century of grumbling by presidents that they are losing resources and falling behind their elite private research university counterparts, public higher education has an opportunity to put new wine into the old A&M bottle. After all, “Athletics & Medicine” are the front doors and neon signs that now showcase an enterprising, dynamic state university.
Who will miss the old “A&M”? At most only a few curmudgeons. The change is timely because at many land grant universities the traditional “A” already has tended to disappear. Consider the case of the University of California, Berkeley, for example, where the historic, famous College of Agriculture has changed its name to the “College of Natural Resources.” What about the “M”? Originally it meant “mechanics” -- a 19th century usage that approximates our notion of “engineering.” But “Mechanics” has little name recognition today and can be confusing because it is likely to bring to mind the vocational training programs in auto repair or air conditioning service provided by community colleges. In other words, the old “A&M” shell is vacant and ready to accommodate the new contenders, “Athletics & Medicine.”
Let’s consider the strengths and similarities of this dynamic duo. First, both represent high profile units of the university. Second, both are not only highly visible, they also are seen as indispensable. Third, both are expensive -- they bring in a lot of resources and also spend a lot. Fourth, both activities are integral to the local economy through services, construction, and employment. The new “A&M” also retains fidelity to the historic land grant service mission. Hospitals and clinics certainly represent health service to the public. And big time athletics can even make a case for itself.
Two years ago a commissioner of a major athletics conference said in earnest that at the state universities in his conference, football ought to be regarded as a form of public service. True, this is not exactly the same as providing extension assistance on crop rotation -- but who’s to say that a state university team in the BCS championship or in the NCAA basketball Final Four has not reached out to the entire state’s population?
Academic Medical Centers (AMC) have represented a story of growth in the past decade. A College of Medicine and its affiliates can no longer be described as merely one of many academic units because it has achieved a size, prestige and power that have transformed its presence. It’s not unusual for a medical center and related health sciences nowadays to constitute more than half of a flagship university’s faculty positions.
Furthermore, for a university with an annual operating budget of about $2 billion, the Academic Medical Center often accounts for 40 percent or more of the total university expenditures.
Athletics and Medicine provide an interesting symmetry in hiring, as both share the ability to compete for talent in a high priced market. Hiring a new coach can, for example, be balanced by hiring a researcher with an M.D. and Ph.D. whose work deals with finding a cure for a serious disease. And, both new hires command a retinue of assistants, staff, and incentive bonuses to supplement base salaries. They are together the super stars of academia.
A flagship state university anchored on one end of the campus with the big “A” and anchored on the other end by the big “M” is formidable. Both units command new, expensive facilities -- which often become obsolete relatively quickly. And the expanding, large facilities mean that the two units occupy a substantial percentage of campus real estate.
There are, of course, a few liabilities in showcasing Athletics and Medicine as the new “A&M.” Although both bring in a lot of money, whether in television revenues, ticket sales, major donations, Medicaid payments, federal grants, or fees from clinics, these fertile sources can be precarious.
Six years ago, for example, an article in the Los Angeles Times reported that UCLA’s medical center “struggled for months with wobbly finances and internal dissension,” characterized by a consulting firm’s report as “problems ranging from inconsistent billing and plummeting revenues to a disorganized administration in which job duties overlapped.” Perhaps the best example of the financial fragility of the expensive university medical centers came about a decade ago at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. -- where a shortfall in the medical center income led the university president to try to impose an internal tax on the law school and business school as a convenient source of medical center fiscal fitness.
Today, a university medical center typically faces three sources of financial risk: first, a downturn in number of patients, and empty hospital beds run up expenses quickly. Second, any reduction in the federal Medicaid or Medicare reimbursement rate will require university medical centers to reduce drastically their income projections. Third, although many academic medical centers enjoy financial autonomy due to their own large endowments, these have quickly become undependable. It’s not unprecedented, for example, that a university medical center endowment of $250 million in 2007 (most of which was earmarked to pay for an aggressive capital expansion and building program) by 2009 has shrunk about 40% down to $150 million -- a one year loss of $100 million due to unproductive investment choices. If and when these shortfalls do occur, most likely the state government and/or the university will bail out the medical center -- it’s too big, too visible, and holds too much of an investment to be abandoned by its host university.
The same dynamics hold for flagship state universities with NCAA Division I intercollegiate athletics programs. A losing season in a revenue sport such as football or men’s basketball quickly can bring a decline in ticket revenues and fewer invitations to be selected for nationally televised games. However, even if this were to happen, it’s hard to imagine a state university abandoning football or basketball. The programs have become so important that their expenses must be covered, even if that were to mean transferring resources from other parts of the university.
What about the consequences for other academic units located on campus between the anchors of Athletics and Medicine? One possible concern is the endurance of the “A&S” acronym for “Arts & Sciences.” Since this unit probably has increased difficulty in claiming primacy in the contemporary state university, a possible reform is to amend their branding to reflect a new, diminished status. “A&S” could be re-branded as “a & s” – lower case to connote shrinking budgets, deteriorating centrality, and reduced visibility.
Numerous recent articles have carried the message that public higher education must reconfigure and re-think its priorities and principles. The “New A&M” model featuring Athletics and Medicine provides a timely, dynamic blueprint for updating the historic land grant commitment.
Our nation’s system of public higher education is in crisis. Unprecedented funding cuts give us several reasons to be concerned: First, about 70 percent of American college students attend public colleges and universities, which means more than 12 million students may be directly affected. Second, many public institutions produce a wealth of valuable research that serves as an engine for both regional and national economic growth.
Less well known is that the crisis in the publics has the potential to undermine the high quality of American higher education as a whole. While state budget cuts may appear to be aimed at the publics, we will all be poorer if our renowned system is allowed to falter. As a result, everyone in the academy -- even those of us in private institutions -- should be thinking of ways to revitalize public higher education.
While there is talk in academic circles of various reforms, two specific changes would go a long way toward helping public institutions strengthen their positions: revamping public university governance, and establishing a progressive tuition structure.
A diversified model
Anyone who spends time outside the U.S. knows that American higher education remains the envy of the world. One of the characteristics that distinguishes our system from others is that the U.S. does not have a centralized approach to higher education. There is no government minister who provides a uniform curriculum or one national research agenda.
The American system is decentralized, which allows for a diversity of approaches and a significant amount of experimentation and innovation. It also fosters healthy competition. Small schools compete with large schools; publics compete with privates; comprehensive universities compete with liberal arts colleges. And there is spirited competition within these groups.
The result is an educational richness not found in other parts of the world. Some liberal arts programs specialize in teaching great books, while others excel in music and the arts. Other institutions become known for their scientific or technical degrees. There are different learning models as well, ranging from traditional classroom education to experiential learning, which involves the integration of classroom study and real-world experience.
There is no one-size-fits-all -- our students are free to choose from a wide range of educational models best suited to their learning styles and future aspirations.
The same dynamic is present in research. Although federal support for university research is a key component -- and there are certainly government research priorities -- there is ample room for faculty- and institution-driven initiatives. Myriad government and private funding sources provide support for a range of different priorities and possibilities. Some institutions are powerhouses in energy or life sciences, while others focus research efforts on economics, agriculture or urban issues.
A threat to our leadership position
Like most competitive models, the American approach to higher education works best when there is a degree of equilibrium within the system -- robust peer groups that force creativity and innovation. When a substantial sector of the group is weakened, disequilibrium is introduced, which threatens the competitive dynamic.
This is what we’re seeing today as the nation’s public institutions struggle financially. Nearly 40 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities are public institutions -- a substantial share of the overall system.
It is certainly true that private institutions have not been immune from the current downturn. We’re all aware that endowments have plummeted, fundraising is flat, and demand for financial aid has increased, putting additional pressure on strained budgets. But the public crisis appears to be both broader and deeper, with the potential to be with us for years to come.
The state of California provides the starkest example. This year, $800 million in funding cuts have forced furloughs of faculty and staff in both the UC and Cal State systems. This means that classes will become even more crowded and faculty members -- already stretched thin -- will have less time to work closely with students.
There will also be an increase in the number of students turned away. The UC system alone (not including Cal State schools or community colleges) is planning to reduce freshman enrollment by 6 percent. In a system of 220,000 students this amounts to more than 13,000 people who will be denied access.
The pain is by no means limited to California. Across the country -- from Michigan to Wisconsin to Virginia -- states are facing revenue shortfalls and making significant cuts to higher education. Even $825 million in federal stimulus -- the portion targeted for all of higher education -- is not enough to offset the extensive cuts made by state governments.
The timing could not be worse. President Obama has underscored what those of us in higher education know to be true: the nation’s economic prosperity is dependent on our system of higher education. The president has noted that jobs requiring a college degree are growing at twice the rate of jobs that require no higher education.
It is the quality of the American system that will develop the human capital needed for our economy to recover and prosper over the long term.
Opportunities for change
Of course, with every crisis comes opportunity. The current situation can pave the way for public higher education to gain some much-needed flexibility and autonomy. By unshackling these systems from some state-mandated controls, they can be revitalized and continue to play an essential role in ensuring the success of American higher education.
We will see a range of innovations such as three-year degree programs, the concept of “cyber campuses,” and more nonresidential education. Each has the potential to reduce costs or generate revenue -- or both.
More fundamental changes will be needed. Two in particular will give public institutions greater control over their own destinies. The first will be effective in the short term, while the second will empower public institutions to introduce and support long-term innovations:
Progressive tuition: We are seeing many public systems raise fees as one way to shore up their finances. But this regressive approach runs the risk of reducing access for those already struggling to pay for college. Another option would be for publics to raise tuition, while providing more need-based financial aid. By pledging that students from families earning under a certain amount -- say $100,000 -- can attend at no cost (and those above a certain threshold would pay on a sliding scale) public colleges can generate valuable revenue, while maintaining the all-important mission of access.
Reform governance: Board members at public institutions are primarily political appointees. While most are knowledgeable and dedicated, the political process by which they are appointed often results in a divergence of views and priorities. Allowing presidents, chancellors, and existing board members to appoint trustees -- standard practice at most private colleges and universities -- would strengthen the ability of public boards to play a strategic role in guiding their institutions.
More than ever, the country needs higher education to do what it does best: develop human and intellectual capital, and be the engine of progress for the nation. The future of American higher education -- and indeed the nation -- will depend on our ability to maintain a vibrant, diverse and competitive model of higher learning.
Both private and public institutions are critical in this endeavor and must be empowered to succeed.
Joseph E. Aoun
Joseph E. Aoun is president of Northeastern University.
In recent weeks, several of my colleagues have asserted that bold steps are needed to return America’s public research universities to prominence, following decades of disinvestment and continued, difficult cuts. They suggested lawmakers consider a consolidation of sorts and proposed federal operating support and matching opportunities for a limited number of public research universities in a new, federal-state university system. This system would, in essence, make the largest and most well-funded public universities larger still and ensure their preeminence through federal investment. It would offer more spots for out-of-state students, who would be granted their home in-state tuition rates at these elite national publics.
Bold action is certainly needed. But the premise for this proposal fails to take into account two powerful notions that the Morrill Act built and that bind our nation’s land-grant and other leading public research universities: the inextricable link between public research and teaching universities and their home state’s economic development – and, even more fundamentally, the power of the big idea.
Public research universities and, most certainly, land-grant research universities are, at their core, state partnerships. By design, they provide research, teaching and extension services statewide, bringing the innovation, scholarship, and knowledge production of the university to practical use to support businesses, industry – in engineering and agriculture historically and now, as our lives and economies diversify, in many arenas. In many states, public research and teaching universities also serve the majority of the state’s first-generation college students – a now imperative cause as our country’s higher education attainment rate continues to decrease compared to much of the developed world and jeopardizes our country’s capacity for global competitiveness.
To assume that these roles would not be diminished or could be subsumed in a consolidation more focused on national and international research and teaching needs is to view our college-bound citizenry through a narrow lens. It does not take into account geographic, socioeconomic or even the family and professional circumstances that the Morrill Act sought to address by opening access to high-quality higher education in every state, large or small, and thus for all Americans more than 100 years ago.
Any solution to the financial problems facing public universities must acknowledge one fundamental truth: that the power of the big idea is bigger than any one university system or one type of university. The collaborative and creative work of our nation’s professoriate is world class and world-changing. We compete with one another – and with the world – to earn the federal and private funding to develop our best ideas. Often those ideas begin with a local problem and bring the world’s knowledge and collaborators together toward a solution. At the University of Idaho, for example, a program led by water resources engineer Rick Allen recently won the prestigious National Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard University. His was one of six innovations selected, out of 700 worldwide entries, for his development of a methodology to employ satellite imagery to track water usage down to the level of individual agricultural fields. More important than the award is the fact that his work is helping the Idaho Department of Water Resources become the first agency in the U.S. to develop and use satellite imagery to monitor and enhance public understanding of water usage. This is a significant advancement for a world with shrinking water resources and for a state in which more than 90 percent of the water is used for agricultural irrigation.
Like his colleagues nationwide, Dr. Allen is a competitor, a collaborator and a state partner. Perhaps we should consider a solution to our fiscal challenges where his and all other public research university professors’ earned extramural funding is matched, dollar for dollar, as part of a federal operations and infrastructure incentive program for public research universities. This would motivate administrative support for growing the research and creative enterprises at all public universities and ensure that they grow at a pace matching their scholarly capacity and the state populations they serve. In addition, a federal incentive program to match philanthropic contributions toward student scholarships and retention programs at public universities – modeling successful matching programs implemented in some states – would most certainly begin to address affordability and success rates at all of our institutions.
To invest only in a select few institutions is to do so at the expense of the work of many. The Morrill Act was bold because it sought higher education for all Americans – regardless of economic, social, ethnic or geographic circumstance. The result was a highly educated, innovative, and prosperous society, with each state building both its own destiny and that of the nation.
Bold action is needed. Surely we can pool our leadership to develop the biggest idea yet – one that reaffirms our state partnerships, our commitment to student access and our commitment to serving all of our state’s citizens through America’s preeminent public research and teaching university system.
M. Duane Nellis
M. Duane Nellis is the president of the University of Idaho.
Susan Gubar – who is retiring after a remarkable career as a teacher and writer in literature and women's studies -- was my teacher. At first glance, the claim might seem thin or self-aggrandizing, the evidence in support of it accurate but scant. I took just one class with Gubar, an undergraduate seminar at Indiana University in the fall of 1980. Three credits out of the 120 or so I earned for my bachelor’s degree. Fifteen weeks out of a student life that lasted nearly a quarter of a century.
So, no, I never took a graduate course with her, never experienced the peculiar intensity and intimacy of a dozen brilliant brats hammering away at big ideas and hoping to earn an approving "smart, very smart" from a demanding professor who delighted in the give-and-take of the seminar table. She did not chair my qualifying exam or direct my doctoral dissertation. She never tore my rough drafts to shreds, exhorting me to read more, think harder, or write more clearly. I never stayed up late grading papers for one of her lecture courses, never faced the terror of speaking in one of those big halls myself in front of one of the most dynamic lecturers in the history of teaching. I never ran to the library to track down a reference for an article she was writing, never house-sat for her, never sat through a mock interview with her in preparation for the job market. I did not teach her to quilt.
I took one class with her, and all I can say is that 30 years later I still give the class and the teacher credit for changing the course of my life. I don’t give Susan all the credit. At 21, I was ready to be inspired and transformed, to find the personal and professional paths I was meant to walk and take my first tentative steps on them, though that cheesy path metaphor makes me sound more like a Victorian heroine than the naïve and unkempt baby dyke I was at the time. In any case, I credit Susan with recognizing what was happening for me and doing everything she could to assure that the moment bore fruit.
What did that mean, in concrete terms? Well, for starters, it meant she didn’t toss me out of her office one autumn afternoon when I burst in without an appointment, pointed at her, and impetuously declared, "I want to do what you do." She sat me down, listened to me, talked to me about what realizing such an ambition would actually involve, and patiently guided me through the steps it would take to get into graduate school. She told me what schools to apply to, carefully read my personal statement, wrote in support of my application, and helped me make a decision when it came time to weigh admissions offers, including a fine one from her own department.
"Go East," she said, because she knew it would be professionally advantageous to have my advanced degrees from an institution other than my undergraduate one. I suspect she also thought it would be good for me to get out of my native state. I took her advice and landed at Rutgers in the fall of 1981, a golden moment when the English department was just beginning to recruit students to come work with the pioneering feminist critics who were there at the time, including Alicia Ostriker, Elaine Showalter, and Catharine Stimpson.
End of story, right? No big deal, eh? It’s the kind of thing we do for our students all the time. Maybe, maybe not.
This is partly a story about luck and good timing, but it is also a story about the structural conditions of public higher education, conditions that have changed significantly since my undergraduate days. I stumbled into Gubar’s class because I needed to pick up a senior seminar after deciding to add English as a second major at the end of my junior year. A friend recommended the course because she’d heard the co-author of a recently published book called The Madwoman in the Attic was a pretty good teacher. The seminar, with the rather dry-sounding title of "Feminist Expository Prose," didn’t necessarily lead one to expect life-altering encounters with radical texts and ideas. I had never even heard of Mary Wollstonecraft, and Three Guineas, the Virginia Woolf text on the syllabus, was the first Woolf I would ever read. I had never heard of Charlotte Perkins Gilman either, but her Women and Economics rocked my young world, while Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s autobiography Eighty Years and More so fascinated me that I hopped in my car over Thanksgiving break to go read the author’s letters in a library 700 miles away.
It was the excitement of that first research trip that propelled me into Susan’s office to announce that I had found my vocation. It’s not immodest to say that Susan took me seriously in part because I so obviously took her and the challenges of her course seriously. She paid attention to me in the office because I was paying attention to her in the classroom. Teaching and learning are all about such moments of recognition and exchange, the meshing of desires, intelligences, imaginations. What do you think about this passage? Lord, I don't know, but did you happen to notice this one?!?
Why write about this formative experience, though, beyond my desire to pay tribute to a great teacher and a valued friend as she steps away from the classroom? I write about it because I am concerned that the conditions of possibility for such encounters are threatened in the current economic climate of higher education. There will always be great teachers, but I fear that great teaching will be much less likely to occur as we reduce the opportunities for the kind of undergraduate learning experience I was so fortunate to have with Susan back in Bloomington all those years ago.
I note with sadness, for example, that the department from which I graduated – like the department in which I now teach – no longer requires a senior seminar of its majors. Such small-group, research-intensive learning is now mandatory only for students enrolled in the honors programs in large humanities departments in cash-strapped public universities. (Did IU's English department have an honors program back in the early 80s? I have no idea, but I probably wouldn't have been in it, since I transferred to the school as a junior and, as previously noted, only declared an English major at the end of that year.)
I have never been one to fetishize requirements, and tend to think we have ridiculously over-structured the lives of today's undergraduates, but the reality is that if I had not had to take a senior seminar I would in all likelihood not have enrolled in Susan Gubar's class in the fall of 1980. And if I hadn't taken that course, I doubt seriously I would have formulated the insane notion of pursuing a Ph.D. in English. Yes, my mother was a high school English teacher when I was young, and I definitely inherited her passions for reading and writing, but I was never encouraged to consider an academic career. My parents thought my facility with languages and the reporter's notebook stuck in my back pocket meant they were making a down payment on my career as a foreign correspondent, though I think my father secretly hoped I would become a Broadway belter.
My point is simply this: Thirty years after my fortunate fall into a class that changed the course of my life, we've made it much harder for kids like me -- middle class, publicly educated, from non-academic families -- to have such experiences. For the upcoming fall semester, my department has exactly one undergraduate seminar on the schedule. It has 20 seats, all reserved for students in the honors program. Ten years ago, the department had six such courses on the fall schedule, each with 18 seats, open to all majors. I understand the brutal economic and institutional conditions that have dictated that shift, but I still can't help worrying about the 88 lost opportunities for students to stumble unwittingly into the delights of concentrated research or to have a close encounter with a faculty member that flicks on a switch they didn't even know they had.
I am sure that if I had only had the opportunity to take one of Susan's large lecture courses I still would have had a thrilling intellectual experience, but it's hard to imagine it would have had the same transformative impact as that magical seminar with the dry-sounding title. It's hard to imagine that, under such circumstances, she would have known me well enough to take seriously my passionate yet inchoate desire to "do what you do." I grabbed the apple and ate hungrily from the tree of knowledge, but the English department made sure I walked into the bounteous, well-tended garden of its roster of seminars.
After attending the symposium held to honor Susan upon her retirement, I walked through the streets of Bloomington for the first time in many years, still trying to absorb the marvelous stories and reflections I had heard the day before of her decades of accomplishment both in and out of the classroom. I felt proud and grateful to be able to say, with so many others, that Susan Gubar was my teacher. She still is, of course, and in all the ways that matter she always will be. I can never repay what I feel I owe her, but, in honor of her and for the sake of the eager 21-year-old kid I will always be in her eyes, I promise I will never stop working to assure that today's and tomorrow's students have access to the same kinds of life-altering learning opportunities I happened upon thirty years ago. My teacher taught me too well for me to dream of anything less.
Thank you, Susan -- for everything.
Marilee Lindemann is associate professor of English and director of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies at the University of Maryland at College Park. A version of this essay first appeared on her blog, Roxie’s World.
If public universities are really committed to promoting access, affordability, and quality, they should consider increasing their funding by accepting more undergraduate students instead of raising tuition and restricting enrollments. While many would argue that higher education institutions are already unable to deal with the students they currently enroll, in reality, it costs most public research universities very little to educate each additional student, and the main reason why institutions claim that they do not get enough money from state funds and student dollars is that they make the students and the state pay for activities that are not directly related to instruction and research.
To calculate how much public research universities spend on educating each undergraduate student, we can look at national statistics regarding faculty salaries and how much it costs a university to staff undergraduate courses. According to a recent study by the American Federation of Teachers, "Reversing Course," the average salary cost per class for a tenured professor at a public research university is $20,000 (4 classes at $80,000), and it costs $9,000 for a full-time non-tenure-track teacher and $4,500 for a part-time instructor to teach the same course. Using these averages, we can determine the annual instructional cost for each student by considering the number of classes each student takes in a year and how much each individual course costs. Since we know that only a third of undergraduate courses are now taught by professors, and the other courses are taught by non-tenured faculty, we can calculate the per student cost, but we first have to determine the average class size to do this calculation, and this is the analysis that I believe no one has ever done.
Looking at transcripts from several public research universities, I have determined that the average annual course load for a student is six large classes (averaging 200 students) and two small courses (averaging 20 students). Next, by using the national faculty average salary per class, and determining who actually teaches the courses (1/3 professors, 1/3 full-time non-tenure-track faculty, and 1/3 part-time faculty), we find that the total average annual instructional cost per student is $1,456 (each large class costs $56 per student and each small class costs $560). In other words, public universities charge on average $7,000 per student and they get another $8,000 per student from the state, but in reality, it only cost about a tenth of this amount to teach each student.
This means that most of the money coming from undergraduate students and the state is used to pay for sponsored research, graduate education, administration, and extracurricular activities. Furthermore, the main reason why the cost for instruction is so low is that research universities rely on large classes and inexpensive non-tenured faculty and graduate students to teach most of their undergraduate courses. However, my point is not that states or students shouldn’t support the full range of activities that universities pursue; rather, I am arguing that the best way to make up for the loss of state funding is to enroll more students.
Of course, administrators will say that I have not accounted for the cost of student services, the library, staff, administration, utilities, and maintenance. My response is that you do not build a new classroom or hire a new administrator when you enroll a new student, and there is a huge economy of scale in higher education. Moreover, universities often leave their classrooms empty for most of the day, and so by making students take courses during the evening or on the weekends, enrollments can be increased without having to build new facilities (you can also cut down on binge drinking). Thus, it seems clear from my calculations that research universities would actually turn a huge profit if they simply froze tuition and increased enrollment, so why do they not do this?
There are probably many answers to this crucial question, but I believe the main reason is that universities do not want to admit to the public that student dollars and state funds are spent on other things than instruction and related research. As many professors have told me, they do not believe that the public would support the research mission of the university, so the university has to hide how it spends its money. Many faculty have also implored me not to publicize the true cost of instruction because this will result in further reductions from the state, and by showing how money is actually spent, I will feed the right-wing attack on all public institutions.
My reply to all of these responses is that we cannot make higher education more accessible, affordable, and effective if we do not reveal to the public how we spend money and why we think it is a good thing for people to support our endeavors. I also believe that you can only run from the truth for so long until it catches up to you. Moreover, my calculations include the cost of a professor’s salary that fund the research part of his or her job.
I am not arguing here that we should get rid of tenure or stop funding research; instead, I am saying that budget transparency will allow everyone in the university to do their job in a more efficient manner as it increases educational access at a time of uncertain economic stability. If we can actually tell the public how and why we spend their money, we may actually see an increase in our support.
Bob Samuels is president of the University Council - American Federation of Teachers, which represents lecturers and librarians at the University of California. He teaches at UCLA and writes the blog Changing Universities.
Responding to a Congressional request, the National Research Council has now convened a committee to study the health of the nation’s research universities and to identify strategies for advancing their role in U.S. prosperity, security, and global competitiveness in the 21st century. This is both an intensely timely issue and one with a very long history. While they have long been with us, these questions have never been more urgent than in the current period of economic uncertainty, as devastating budget cuts and widespread disinvestment are threatening the foundation of our nation’s higher education system, and its research universities in particular.
To define a course of action for the 21st century U.S. research university, the newly formed committee would do well to look to the roots of this question in the 19th century. We are approaching the 150th anniversary of the U.S. policy that has been key to shaping the evolution of public higher education in general and the American research university in particular: the 1862 Morrill Act.
Also known as the Land Grant College Act, this federal legislation made public higher education possible for millions of Americans, extending it beyond the rich, the clergy, and the privileged, and creating the opportunity for anyone with the talent and the motivation to benefit from an advanced education. This act surely helped to create an unprecedented century of American prosperity, fueled by the innovation, discovery, and knowledge generated from our classrooms and research laboratories. It also established today’s paradigm, with the states responsible for much of the fundamental budget and policy regulation of public colleges and universities.
But as the sesquicentennial of this landmark law draws closer, instead of celebrating its legacy, the nation steadily is letting it slip away, and eroding a cornerstone of our democracy in the process. In state after state, fundamental higher education budgets are being ruthlessly slashed to a degree never seen before, compromising the fundamental operating basis of public higher education.
This current model is simply unsustainable. State by state, we are deconstructing a great American institution without the type of public debate and examination that rightfully must accompany a social policy change of this magnitude, and doing so in the utter absence of any realistic and coordinated overarching national strategy for public higher education. Moreover, the research universities, with the breadth of their sophisticated activities, more than other sectors of the public higher education enterprise, are disproportionately threatened by this instability.
The future of our nation’s public higher education institutions is too important to leave in the hands of individual states. As the framers of the Morrill Act forecast, and as the foundation of this new federal panel reaffirms, a strong public higher education system anchored by excellent research universities is key to building U.S. economic, intellectual, and technological strength, as well as to ensuring our national security and global competitiveness. We all have a stake in this, and we need public policy that advances our public research universities as an investment in our collective well-being.
The time is ripe for our nation’s leadership to take a fresh approach to this issue while pushing this policy discussion into the public arena, and the creation of the National Research Council Committee on Research Universities is a promising foundation for such a conversation. I hope that the committee’s deliberations will serve to frame a larger national debate about establishing a broad, overarching national public higher education policy. In place of the short-term, narrowly defined tactical fixes based on political trends of the day that our states have shown of late, we need a long-range, carefully considered national strategy to define the role of public higher education in our nation’s future, and to shape the long-term policies best equipped to support this role.
Such a debate should begin by affirming the basic notion of why we need a strong system of public higher education in this country, and proceed to explore how we can best achieve this objective. Several critical questions and proposals are already being raised within the national higher education community, and would help to frame this debate. Some of my colleagues, for example, have called for a new Morrill Act reaffirming federal investment in public higher education, with a focus on urban-serving universities. Others call upon states to resume the chief role in paying for public higher education systems, while others suggest creating a group of federally-funded super land grant universities. And as the global economic crisis makes such federal and state support increasingly more challenging, growing numbers are calling for universities to be empowered to generate revenue independently through entering into strategic public-private partnerships and introducing key elements of free market competition.
Whatever shape these conversations ultimately take, I hope they will urge a careful, strategic discussion at Congressional and Administration levels, as well as topping the agendas of major higher education associations such as the Association of American Universities and Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. The result? A clear and widely-understood national strategy shaped by broad-ranging, active public debate will help ensure that our campuses continue to contribute significantly not only to the advancement of education and research, but also to the economic strength and security of our communities, regions, and nation. Fueling an innovation-based economy in the 21st century by sustaining our research legacy will improve quality of life and maintain our healthy democracy. Our success in reversing the plight of public higher education would also mean the preservation of a positive U.S. economic and political impact globally.
Nationally, we need to return to the view that public higher education is a public good. And we need to recognize that for its critical and foundational impact to continue, maintaining a strong higher education system, guided by a long-range, strategic federal policy, must remain one of our highest national priorities.
If we succeed, we will be able to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act as the fulfillment of the foresight and value of our American public higher education system, just as its authors intended — not as an occasion for regret as we look back on the remarkable legacy we squandered in times of short-term financial difficulties.
John B. Simpson
John B. Simpson is president of the University at Buffalo, of the State University of New York.