American colleges and universities, especially those that define themselves as public institutions because they are owned by states, carry on a continuous conversation with their faculty, students, trustees, legislators, alumni and friends about the distribution of benefits and costs between private and public entities. This conversation of many decades has gained considerable visibility lately in the form of a question: Are America’s public universities becoming private? Although this question is surely worth the extended and often highly perceptive analysis it receives, it sometimes helps to reconfigure the debate slightly to gain another perspective.
It’s not that anyone misses the central point -- the public, tax supported percentage of public university budgets has been in decline for over a decade, even though the public investment in public higher education in total dollars continues to rise as more and more students enter postsecondary education. Rather, we often let our words define our view of the world when our words may not mean exactly what we take them to mean.
When we say public universities, we immediately bring a prototypical institution to mind, usually a substantial state flagship university, often from a Midwestern frame of reference, perhaps modeled after Iowa or Indiana or Wisconsin. When we say private university we also have a prototype in mind, perhaps Stanford, Yale or Duke. From these prototypes we develop a conversation about the convergence of public and private that leads us to worry about the loss of public purpose and investment in American higher education.
In the real world, most of public higher education takes place in state and community colleges that remain often 80 to 90 percent funded by public sources. For these institutions, the issue of public versus private is mostly irrelevant, and while they celebrate every small gift and modest grant, their primary focus is on their states and localities in the endless effort to sustain their operations. They are not at risk of becoming private.
Similarly, in the real world, the notion of private universities being somehow separate and independent from the obligations of public institutions by virtue of their funding sources is also not entirely accurate. Private universities, even those with exceptional endowments, exist to large extent on the public’s account. Their endowments succeed by virtue of public tax exemptions. The gifts that build the endowment enjoy a public tax exemption. The property and campuses of these private universities enjoy a public tax exemption. The federal government provides extensive tax supported need based financial aid to private institutions, revenue that subsidizes those institutions’ tuition and fess.
Private research universities, like their public counterparts, receive federal grants and contracts whose overhead pays some portion of the research costs, a direct taxpayer subsidy. Private universities in many states receive a per-student subsidy for every in-state student they enroll, again a public subsidy. And on occasion, private universities succeed in persuading their states to invest in economic development activities that support the academic objectives of the private institution (either by subsidizing research or helping defray the costs of facilities).
America’s private institutions are a public trust. While they can evade many of the considerable bureaucratic and regulatory costs and obligations that public universities endure, they are nonetheless, publicly subsidized institutions with private governance.
This is not a bad thing. It is just how we do business in America.
However, higher education itself (public or private as defined by institutional governance) is both a public good and a private good for most of its participants. Students in particular may attend college for wisdom and knowledge, but primarily they attend college to acquire the skills and credentials needed for the good life. Publication after publication calculates and compares the differential lifetime earnings of college graduates compared to high school graduates, demonstrating over and over again the exceptionally high personal, private value that a college education confers. The private benefit justifies tuition and fees, the lost income for the years of college attendance, and the loan indebtedness incurred by students and their families. The data tell us that these private benefits more than sufficiently compensate for the costs parents and students assume, a conclusion the behavior of students and parents verifies.
What’s the argument about then? If this is such a good deal, why do we have a controversy about the withdrawal of public support from public institutions? The controversy is less about the withdrawal of support than it is about the amount of subsidy individuals should receive as they acquire the private benefit of a college education. The consequence of a decline in the taxpayer subsidy of public higher education is an increase in the net cost of higher education to students. This increase in the net cost has many consequences, of course. As an example, for students whose families are at the margin of the American economic dream, any increase in the net cost may well put some forms of higher education, but usually not all forms, out of reach.
The changing emphasis away from the general benefit colleges and universities bring society to the particular benefit that they bring individuals encourages a tendency toward complex pricing. For selective institutions, as everyone knows, the sticker price of higher education (whether at a “public” or “private” institution) reflects what we could call a reference price. This is not the actual price charged every student; instead, a reference price marks the highest price a student should have to pay to acquire the private benefit of attending the institution. To arrive at the real price, the institution and the student engage in a private negotiation to set the net actual price based on an evaluation of what the institution can give the individual student and what the individual student can give the institution. This is not a public transaction that applies to all students; it is a private transaction that negotiates a private price between suppliers (the school) and individual consumers (the student).
Although this transactional model is well known to students and parents, it reflects a larger tendency in the American political and social environment to disaggregate a general public good (such as a university enterprise) into a collection of private goods (such as specific college degrees, different majors, or special programs) and then negotiate separate agreements and pricing mechanisms for the production and delivery of these private goods.
Many public and private universities find it easier to persuade legislators to buy particular fragments of the institution’s purposes than it is to acquire general funding for the overall purpose of the institution. We can get an earmark for an honors program, for a remedial program for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, for enhancement of science and math, for the improvement of writing skills, or for a research building tied to a specific economic development objective long before we can get an increase in the general fund to support general education and research for all students and faculty.
This particularistic approach to higher education affects public and private institutions in other areas of funding as well. When either type of institution asks a donor for institutional support, more and more donors want very specific agreements about the exact use of their funds, even if the funds are placed in an endowment that will last forever. They do not give money for the improvement of education; they give funds for art history, for the development of specific scientific sub-disciplines, or for the recruitment of basketball players. These transactions, like the student transactions, are individual, private, and specific.
We can speculate on the many reasons why our society has drifted into seeing higher education as a retail consumer product (whether owned by the public or by a private nonprofit corporation). We can worry about the lack of faith in the institutions’ integrity and consistency of purpose that encourages specific and detailed transactions rather than satisfaction with general commitments. We can feel outrage at the retreat from supporting higher education because it is good for the nation into a safe haven that sees higher education as a privately acquired ticket to prosperity. Yet every institution, public or private, finds itself accelerating these trends by its policies and practices.
I’m often reminded of an effort some years ago by a distinguished association of public and private research institutions to band together and refuse to participate in such retail negotiations, associated in this instance with federal earmarks. The academic leadership at that time employed remarkable eloquence in the defense of common approaches to peer reviewed grant making as being the best possible means of achieving the public good of merit based award of scientific and other educational support. After the meeting, the institutions appeared to increase their practice of securing as many earmarks in the federal budget as possible, employed high powered lobbyists to improve their chances, and kept score on how much money their local legislators helped them bring home.
All of us in American higher education, especially at the high end of America’s 170 or so research institutions, are in the public and private sectors. We all seek public funds and private funds, we all deal with our students on the basis of selling a publicly subsidized product at individually negotiated prices, we all show great creativity in disaggregating our products and services into the smallest retail units needed for sale to our many private purchasers. We might prefer a different system, but this one, for all its faults, is the one we’ve helped invent and continue to refine.
The heated rhetoric surrounding immigration reform legislation in Congress threatens to drown out an important, bipartisan effort to resolve a decades-old inconsistency in federal immigration law concerning postsecondary tuition costs for undocumented students who have graduated from high schools in the United States.
The “DREAM Act,” which was incorporated into the Senate Judiciary Committee’s immigration reform bill last week, would allow states to provide in-state tuition for postsecondary education to undocumented students who have attended (for at least three years) and graduated from high school in their states.
Federal immigration law now prohibits them from doing so, though that has not stopped several states, including “red” states like Utah, Kansas, and Texas, from adopting such legislation in recognition of the fact that there are more than 50,000 of these students each year that graduate from high school as -- in nearly every way -- children of the American dream.
Of the DREAM Act, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) stated, “I find it inconceivable that we would provide greater benefits to persons who are here illegally than to American citizens. It makes a mockery of the rule of law."
However, Congress must ensure the debate over the education of undocumented students is actually grounded in the law, rather than rhetoric. Federal law related to this issue was interpreted more than 20 years ago by the United States Supreme Court’s 1982 Plyler v. Doe decision.
Plyler v. Doe involved a Texas law that effectively banned undocumented minor children from participating in public elementary and secondary education. The Court heard arguments that sounded quite similar to those used to deny in-state college tuition for the same students: that providing K-12 education rewards illegal immigration, that we should not give public benefits to those in the country illegally. The significance of this case is not that it settled once and for all the ideological arguments surrounding immigration. Rather, the Court created protective legal precedent for minor undocumented students by carefully examining the intersection of immigration law, the distribution of public goods, and individual rights as protected by the Constitution of the United States.
The Supreme Court’s decision addressed the question: Did a child break the law because the parents brought the child into the country illegally as a minor? The Supreme Court said “no.”
The Court ruled that such children, in fact, were entitled to equal protection under the law, one of America’s most cherished legal principles. As cited in the Court’s opinion, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution provides that “[n]o State shall…deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
As a population within the state’s jurisdiction, undocumented students were, therefore, entitled to equal treatment under the law. In the opinion of the Court, Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr., wrote, “To permit a state … to identify subclasses of persons whom it would define as beyond its jurisdiction, thereby relieving itself of the obligation to assure that its laws are designed and applied equally to those persons, would undermine the principal purpose for which the Equal Protection Clause was incorporated in the Fourteenth Amendment.”
The Court further argued that federal immigration law, despite “sheer incapability or lax enforcement,” was not a justification for denying children equal protection and access to education.
In recognition of this principle, several state legislatures have passed laws to allow in-state postsecondary tuition for undocumented students who have attended public high schools in state for more than three years. They realize the legal “no-man’s land” these students occupy, and have sought to remedy it under the law.
The central relevance of the Supreme Court’s case to this debate over in-state tuition for undocumented students is that we cannot simply ignore what Justice Brennan called the “shadow population” of students who go about their daily lives and contribute to our society in the same way that we all strive to contribute. Moreover, we cannot deprive these students of the equal protection that our Constitution provides simply because they graduate from the high school setting where the Supreme Court has decided that it applies.
Though the issue is easy to weigh down with heated rhetoric, we hope that the law will, in fact, prevail, and that Congress will pass the DREAM Act. As Justice Brennan concluded, “[W]hatever savings might be achieved by denying these children an education, they are wholly insubstantial in light of the costs involved to these children, the State, and the Nation.”
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
Assessment will make higher education accountable. That’s the claim of many federal and state education policy makers, as illustrated by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Improved assessment has become for many the lever to control rising tuition and to inform the public about how much students might learn (and whether they learn at all). But many in higher education worry that assessment can become a simplistic tool -- producing data and more work for colleges, but potentially little else.
Has the politicization of assessment deepened the divide between higher education and the public? How can assessment play the role wished for by policy makers to gauge accountability and affordability and also be a powerful tool for faculty members and college presidents and provosts to use to improve quality and measure competitiveness? Successful policies will include practices that lead to confidence, trust and satisfaction -- confidence by faculty members in the multiple roles of assessment, trust by the public that assessment will bring accountability, and satisfaction by the leaders such as the presidents that assessment will restore the public’s confidence in higher education. A tall order to be sure, but we believe assessment – done correctly -- can play a pivotal role in the resolution to the current debate on cost and quality.
For confidence, trust and satisfaction to occur, higher education and public officials must each take two steps. Higher education must first recognize that public accountability is a fact and an appropriate expectation. This means muting the calls by public higher education for more autonomy from state and federal government based simply on the declining percent of the annual higher education budget provided by public sources. This argument may help gain the attention of policy makers regarding the financial conundrums in higher education but it is not a suitable argument against accountability. Between federal and state sources, billions of dollars have been invested in higher education over the nearly 150 years of public higher education. The public deserves to know that its investments of the past are being used well today -- efficiently and effectively.
In response, federal and state policy makers need to publicly embrace the notion advocated as early as 1997 that quality is based on “high standards not standardization.” Higher education’s differentiation is a great gift to America. The cornerstone of American higher education -- institutions with a diversity of missions -- is meeting the educational needs of different kinds of students with different levels of preparation and ability to pay. It is important to recognize that assessment must match and reinforce the pluralism of American higher education. America is graced with many different kinds of colleges -- private, public, religious, secular, research, etc. It is important to have an assessment system that encourages colleges and universities to pursue unique missions.
A second step is for higher education to make transparent the evidence of quality that the public needs in order to trust higher education. “Just trust us,” is no longer sufficient as higher education has flexed its independence in setting ever increasing tuition rates in spite of the public’s belief that it has been excessive. Trust is built on transparency of evidence not mere declarations of quality. Practically a few indicators of quality that cut across higher education are going to be required. For example, surrogate and indirect measures of learning and development captured by student surveys, amount of need-based financial assistance, dollars per student invested in advising services, and dollars per faculty member dedicated to instructional and curricular development are some possibilities. Public opinion is heavily on the side of legislators and members of Congress on this issue.
For public policy makers, it is imperative to accept the notion that to assess is to share the evidence and then to care. Caring requires action and support not just criticism. Public policy makers must educate themselves about the complexity of higher education teaching, research and public engagement. This means accepting that the indicators of quality of the work of the academy are complex, as they should be. Whatever indicators are chosen, the benchmarks will vary by type of college or university. Take graduation rates as an example. Inevitably, highly selective colleges and universities are much more likely to have higher graduation rates than those with access as a goal. The students being admitted to the highly selective colleges and universities already have demonstrated their ability to achieve and have the study skills and background to be successful in college. Open access colleges and universities, on the other hand, have a greater percentage of students who are at risk, need to develop study skills in college, and are in general less prepared for the riggers of college study when compared to those with high achievement records out of high school. But these characteristics -- which frequently also result in lower graduation rates -- do not make these colleges and universities inadequate or not worthy of public support. Many great thinkers have said that a nation can be judged by how it treats its poor; this same argument works for education. The goal for everyone is to do better, starting where the students are -- not where we would like them to be when admitted.
With both sides changing their approaches, the public and higher education can productively focus on how together they can use assessment as an effective tool to determine quality and foster improvement. In doing so, we offer eight recommendations that if followed can offer the faculty the confidence they demand that assessment is a valid tool for communicating the evidence of student learning and development, the presidents the satisfaction that when all is said and done, it will have been worth the effort, and the public the trust that higher education is responsive to its concerns.
1. Recognize that assessment can serve both those within the academy and those outside of it, but different approaches to assessment are required. Faculty members and students can use assessment to provide the feedback that creates patterns and provides insight for their own discussion and decision making. To them assessment is not to be some distant mechanical process far removed from teaching and learning. On the other hand, parents, prospective students, collaborators, and policy makers also can benefit from the results of assessment but the evidence is very different. Through institutional assessment, they can know that specific colleges and universities are more or less effective as places to educate students, which types of students they best serve, and the best fit for jointly tackling society’s problems.
2. Focus on creating a culture of evidence as opposed to a culture of outcomes. Language and terms are important in this endeavor. The latter implies a rigidity of ends, whereas the former reflects the dynamic nature of learning, student development and solution making. A “teaching for the test” mentality cannot be the goal for most academic programs. We know from experience that assessment strategies that have relied heaviest on external standardized measures of achievement have been inadequate to detect with any precision any of the complex learning and developmental goals of higher education, e.g. critical thinking, commitment, values.
3. Accept that measurement of basic academic and vocationally oriented skills and competences may be appropriate for segments of the student population. For example, every time we get on an airplane we think of the minimum (and hopefully) high standards of the training of the pilots and the rigorous assessment procedures that “guarantee” quality assurance.
4. Avoid generic comparisons between colleges and universities as much as possible. A norm-referenced approach to testing guarantees that one half of the colleges and universities will be below average. The goal is not to be above average on some arbitrary criterion, but to achieve the unique mission and purpose of the specific college and university. A better strategy is to build off one’s strengths -- at both the individual and institutional level. Doing so reinforces an asset rather than a deficit view of both individual and institutional behavior leading to positive change and pride in institutional purpose. In order to benchmark progress, identify similar institutions. Such practices will encourage more differentiation in higher education and work to stem the tide of institutions clamoring to catch up with or be like what is perceived as a more prestigious college or university. "Be what you are, do it exceptionally well, and we will do what we can to fund you" would be a good state education policy.
5. Focus on tools that assess a range of student talent, not just one type or set of skills or knowledge. Multiple perspectives are critical to portraying the complexity of students’ achievements and the most effective learning and development environments for the enrolled students. All components of the learning environment, including student experiences outside the classroom and in the community must be assessed. We must measure what is meaningful, not give meaning to what we measure or test. Sometimes simple quantitative data such as graduation rates and records of employments are sufficient and essential for accountability purposes. But to give a full portrayal of student learning and development and environmental assessment, many types of evidence in addition to achievement tests are needed. Sometimes portfolio assessment will be appropriate, and at other times standardized exams will be sufficient.
6. Connect assessment with development and change. Assessment has been most useful when driven by commitment to l earn, create and develop, not when it has been mandated for purposes of administration and policy making. Assessment is the means, not the end. It is an important tool to be sure, but it always needs to point to some action by the participating stakeholders and parties.
7. Create campus conversations about establishing effective environments for the desirable ends of a college education. Assessment can contribute to this discussion. In its best from, assessment focuses discussion, not make decisions. People do that, and people need to be engaged in conversations and dialogue in ways that they focus not on the evidence but the solutions. As we stated earlier, to assess is to share and care. When groups of faculty get together to discuss the evaluations of their students they initially focus, somewhat defensively, on the assessment evidence (and the biases inherent in such endeavors), but as they get to know and trust each other they focus on how to help each other to improve.
8. Emphasize assessment’s role in “value added” strategies. Assessment should be informing the various publics about how the educational experiences of students or of the institutional engagement in the larger society is bringing value to the students and society. All parties need to get used to the idea that education can be conceptualized and interpreted in terms of a return on investment. But this can only be accomplished if we know what we are aiming for. This will be different for each college and university and that is why the dialogue with policy makers is so crucial. For some, the primary goal of college will focus on guiding students in their self discovery and contributing to society; for others it will be more on making a living; for yet others on understanding the world in which we live.
When both the public and higher education accept and endorse the principle that assessment is less about compliance or standardization and more about sharing, caring and transparency, then confidence, trust and satisfaction will be more likely. We believe that higher education must take the lead by focusing on student learning and development and engage with the public in collaborative decision making. If not, policy makers may conclude that they have only the clubs of compliance and standardization to get higher education’s attention.
Larry Braskamp and Steven Schomberg
Larry A. Braskamp, formerly senior vice President for academic affairs at Loyola University Chicago, is professor of education at the university. Steven Schomberg, retired in 2005 as Vice Chancellor for Public Engagement and Institutional Relations, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Wick Sloane filed this application for the Iowa presidency two days before the Iowa Board of Regents announced the collapse of the search. The original column, which we run here, holds up, though. Wick, still a reluctant nominee for the Harvard presidency, said he'd only add, "Compensation and country club memberships for presidents are not the point. Courage is the issue -- by regents and presidents -- courage to face the atrocious mess we've all made of public higher education."
I hereby apply for the presidency of the sensational University of Iowa. The cornerstone of my offer is that I apply as a low bidder. Qualified bidder, of course.
When, oh when, will a public Board of Regents write the accurate ad?
"Help! Public higher ed in peril! Low-income students screwed. Medicaid and prisons chewing up all the money. U.I. annual in-state tuition is $6,135, with federal Pell grants frozen at $4,050. No, we can't balance the budget with more research and out-of-state tuitions because the other 49 states have that same plan. Only candidates willing to lead with concrete ideas apply."
The great University of Iowa is within a few bushels of corn and soybeans of catastrophe. Press coverage has been handwringing that the current presidential pay of $300,000 or so and a house will never attract talent. All of us unlucky enough to live on the U.S. coasts count on the integrity of Iowa to keep the nation grounded with common sense and sane values. After all, the President of the United States settles for $400,000 and a house. That’s a big job, too.
The Iowa job specifications, which anyone could find from the university’s Web site, might as well be from Massachusetts or Oregon. The tone reiterates the U.S. party line: Public higher education is a fund drive and a few fat paychecks away from eternal bliss. “Our state university will be fine if… if it’s the ones across the state line that are cursed.” (Question: why do candidates who won’t return calls for posts paying less than $500,000 need the job spelled out in these tedious specifications?)
Every public search for a public university president strolls toward the same gallows: Higher and higher salaries, for faculty and administrators, to attract top talent; raise more money; more research funding; collect vast new revenues by attracting students paying out-of-state tuition. No mention of the colliding federal polices that guarantee state-to-state cannibalization by colleges and universities. In the Iowa specs, no requirement to respond to the three-alarm-fire report in September from the U.S. Department of Education Commission on the Future of Higher Education.
Ten candidates for the U.I. $500k-and-a-house presidency allegedly spent a weekend this month in furtive conversations in or around Chicago with or without members of the search committee. I write in empathy and exhortation. I can’t think of many jobs with more overwhelming responsibilities and difficult tradeoffs than public university regent or senior administrator. Isn’t, though, The Point of great education having the skills to frame the impossible and find some answers?
I’ll take the Iowa job for the lower of $250,000 and a house or half whatever compensation package is now on the table. No raises, no bonuses, no country club memberships. I do want the difference, though, for staff development, for faculty travel and research, and for scholarships. Check out the rules for service contracting for the Iowa Department of Administrative Services. Shouldn’t these low-cost principles apply for the U.I. presidency? Of course executive recruiters say high pay is the answer. Recruiters’ pay is a percentage of total compensation. As U.I. president, I’ll also propose eliminating federal tax benefits for any university or college paying a president more than $250,000 plus a house. The job is public service, a privilege, not a hedge fund. The cheers from families every graduation are the incentive pay.
I’ll ask to have ready, prior to arrival, a thorough, statistically sound survey of faculty, students and staff. What’s working? What’s not? Issues and aspirations. U.I. is huge. I’ll need to know quickly what really is on everyone’s minds. We’ll meet once a week and knock off as many concerns as we can each week.
I will sit down with my colleagues at the other Iowa universities and request that we create a plan for fair sharing of scarce state resources to ensure every Iowan has the skills for a successful 21st Century career, preferably in Iowa. Put penalties in my pay for joint accountability for educational accomplishment for every Iowa public university student. Flagships cannot just grab the easy stuff. I’ve seen too many social and political forces incent state flagships to work in their own interests, not for the total state. We will identify by name those Iowans who lack a solid education, and we will make measurable progress for them semester by semester. Dock my pay for failure here.
Funding, funding and funding is the president’s job. My second day, I’ll invite the Iowa Congressional delegation and state legislators to campus. What’s their thinking on federal Medicaid cutbacks to the states and their devastating effect on public higher education nationwide? I will duct tape my mouth shut and listen. No state university, let alone state university president, will survive without addressing the dysfunctional federal policies eroding access to higher education. I’ll send ahead the Web links to my credos on this issue. I am sure these Iowans will have better ideas than mine.
I will continue to exhort Midwestern higher education to be the voice for the nation. I was lucky enough in 2005 to work with the Midwestern provosts of the Committee on Institutional Collaboration (CIC). I was a Fellow for Higher Education Finance for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. My nudge to the weary then was to ask these fine provosts from the CIC universities to remember their home state, not just their home campus. Iowa. Illinois. Indiana. Ohio. Michigan. Pennsylvania. Wisconsin. The Congressional delegations that can rule the land, if someone will give the delegations a plan. A unified, consistent demand for federal education funding by all states is the strongest strategy. Cannibalism is the name for the current individual campus lobbying and earmarking.
The 2008 Iowa Caucuses? And the U.S. presidential primaries in CIC states that follow? The Iowa university presidents must lead off with the demand for a consistent, fair federal education policy to create a solid economy for this century. Yes, the great rustbelt industries of the G.I. Bill are struggling. But G.I. Bill education funding created the skills that set off the greatest economic boom in history. What plan will begin that boom for this century? The CIC and neighboring states are 117 electoral votes. (Tony New England has some fine colleges but only 34 electoral votes.) Who better than the next U.I. president to lead this discussion? Any public university presidents without a plan for the nation on the table are already well past the first act of their own Greek tragedy. Doomed. The chorus has spoken.
The Des Moines Register reported earlier this year on U.I. regent concerns about keeping candidate names secret and about whether finalists would even have on-campus interviews. A worry is that good candidates don’t want their current employer to know is one reason cited. Guys, anyway, in these lofty pay grades always crow. Be assured that some of the Chicago Ten are already using these Iowa caucuses for a pay raise at home.
Far from lurking in closed meetings, every candidate must address the campus and the state legislature and describe the terrifying facts facing U.S. public higher education. And how Iowa has to put the issues on the table, yesterday, and lead. Iowa would serve the nation by launching this discussion.
U.I. is a research university. Before the end of my first week, I’ll ask all the principal investigators if they’ll give me a day to answer a simple mystery no one will face down: Does U.S. higher education need another building? We have no idea what the total classroom capacity of the U.S. is period, let alone in relation to students already born. Classrooms are dark weekends and most evenings. The research situation is worse. Individual university studies show projections of growth in research funding. But the universities are all looking at the same data. How does current lab space and space under construction relate to new funding scenarios? We have no idea. I’d rather improve faculty salaries and student financial aid.
College athletics is an oxymoron and a resource sinkhole. On my third day, I will show how Iowa, without losing any fun, pride or entertainment, can turn collegiate athletics over to a national NGO. (As an NGO, the Federal Reserve System, with NCAA-like regions, is right there.) My plan is for all the same teams, conferences and bowl games. The university and college role, though, will just be collecting tuition and teaching classes for the athletes. The current national situation makes no more sense than the New York Yankees taking over New York City schools. That Iowans know this is obvious: The bow-tied Iowa Regent Chair Michael Gartner is principal owner of the Iowa Cubs. Is he proposing that the Cubs take over the Des Moines schools?
Searches are too solemn. As part of my interviews, I challenge Regent Gartner to a blindfolded, bow-tie tying contest during halftime of any Hawkeye game he chooses. Perhaps while the crowd serenades with the Iowa fight song.
What an ideal time for an Iowa-led education century in the United States. Harvard is history. I’m a nominee for that presidency, and Iowa is the better job. Harvard has a $29-billion endowment and no common sense. My favorite evidence: Harvard Yard is 31 feet above sea level. The university sits on the Charles River, an estuary, and all that brainpower has no plan for global warming.
On compensation, though, I do have my price. May I move the president’s office over to the sensational UI Iowa Writers’ Workshop?
Wick Sloane's Inside Higher Ed column, The Devil's Workshop, appears as needed. He is an end user of a higher education.
Every December, highly educated young people load up their Toyotas and hop on airplanes to spend the holidays with their families. This year was no exception. For a week or two, libraries and laboratories across the country went quiet. The lights went off in Manhattan editorial offices and advertising agencies; Washington’s government bureaucracies ground to a halt; and Northern California’s venture capital firms and tech companies stopped making deals. At the same time, business picked up at small-town bars and breakfast joints across the country, as all of those academics, editors, lawyers, and engineers reconnected with their families and scattered high school classmates.
I used to think of the holiday season -- with its cloying carols, crowded sidewalks, and inevitable sugar headaches -- as an annual nightmare. But these days, my view of the season has shifted. While I’m still not a fan, I’ve come to appreciate how Christmas temporarily desegregates the American population.
That’s a statement that needs some explanation. “Segregation” is intimately tied to race in American vocabulary, but race is not the only way in which America is segregated. In fact, over the last several decades, residential racial segregation -- the tendency of African-American and white families to live in the same neighborhood -- has declined substantially. That doesn’t mean that spatial inequalities have disappeared. Despite the progress that we’ve made, many cities remain highly racially segregated. Despite the progress that we’ve made on racial desegregation, economic segregation -- poor and affluent families’ propensity to live near one another -- hasn’t budged. Furthermore, during the last few decades a whole new form of residential segregation has emerged. I call it educational segregation: College graduates have become increasingly clustered in a handful of places, while large swathes of America experience a long, drawn-out brain drain.
This is the form of segregation that I have in mind when I say that the holidays temporarily desegregate the American population. Every December, holiday cheer pushes young college graduates out of America’s creative cities and college towns and back to their hometowns across the country.
Much of my research has been dedicated to documenting educational segregation. My interest has autobiographical roots. I was born and raised in Madison County, Nebraska (where 17 percent of adults had a B.A. or higher degree in 2000). Like most of my friends, I always knew that success meant leaving town, and that’s exactly what I did. I went to college in central Connecticut (where 34 percent of adults held B.A.'s) and graduate school in Manhattan (the 13th most highly educated county in the U.S., with a B.A. concentration of 49 percent). My current gig has me living in a faculty ghetto in central New Jersey (where each and every one of my neighbors has a postgraduate degree). But I’m a social scientist, not a memoirist, and I’m primarily interested in the ways in which educational segregation shapes inequality and opportunity in American life. My research suggests that educationally selective migration is fundamentally altering America’s social geography, and that this change has consequences that we are only beginning to understand.
Some of these consequences are positive. Economic research provides strong evidence to suggest that the spatial concentration of human capital stimulates economic growth. As anybody who has ever had a successful collaboration with the colleague down the hall can tell you, causal conversation over the coffee machine can often lead to real breakthroughs. Turns out, the same thing happens in regional economics. When smart people cluster together, innovation occurs, productivity rises, and growth occurs. This is undoubtedly a good thing. Thanks to educational segregation, the cities and college towns in which many of us live have become bright spots in the American economy. And even those of us who live outside these bright spots benefit to some extent from advances that take place when highly educated people rub shoulders.
But educational segregation is a zero-sum game. For every booming human capital hub, there are dozens of brain drain communities, and for these communities educational segregation can be disastrous. While brain drain is not exclusively a rural phenomenon, the picture is particularly bleak for rural America. In any given year, more than 6 percent of America’s non-metropolitan B.A. holders migrate to a metropolitan area. Economic growth has stalled in these brain drain communities. In the worst cases, communities are left with insufficient medical care and limited educational opportunities, as they find themselves unable to replace retiring small-town doctors and teachers. There’s no reason why college graduates need to be distributed equally across the United States. But deepening educational segregation closes off opportunities for people born into brain drain communities, creating new social and economic inequalities.
So how do we break the vicious cycle of educational segregation or at least mitigate its worse consequences? I’m generally a big believer in the transformative power of education, but for all the benefits that college-goers get from higher education, state investments in higher education don’t do much to keep talent in brain drain communities. Since human capital is mobile, places can’t educate their way out of educational segregation. The nation’s two most highly educated states -- Connecticut and Massachusetts -- rank 33th and 48th respectively on per capita higher education funding. And all but two of the of the 10 states that spent the most per capita on higher education in the early 1990s experienced net brain drain between 1990 and 2000. In a sense, by putting money into public higher education, my home state of Nebraska is underwriting the out-migration of its most talented young people and subsidizing economic growth in the places they end up.
Economist Richard Florida advocates a “creative cities” approach, urging communities on the losing end of educational segregation to cultivate the cultural amenities and social tolerance that highly educated youth value. This advice turns the common-sense logic of regional economic planning on its head. While planners have traditionally focused on getting businesses to locate in their communities, reasoning that jobs will attract workers; Florida has been convincing planners to focus their attention on attracting the highly-educated “creative class”, arguing that these workers make jobs for themselves and others. Based on the Florida model, the city of Memphis is busily organizing arts festivals and rezoning neighborhoods to allow sidewalk cafes in an attempt to attract highly educated migrants and stimulate economic growth. This effort is almost certainly better than nothing, but my research suggests that neither amenities nor jobs attract college graduates to human capital hubs. The big lure is the presence of other college graduates. Furthermore, even if Memphis does manage to make itself a human capital hub, chances are it’ll be snatching its college graduates from the surrounding countryside, not New York, Washington, or Raleigh-Durham. Building new creative cities may only aggravate educational segregation overall.
A third approach leverages student financial aid incentives to slow brain drain. With college tuition growing at a rate that outpaces both inflation and the availability of financial aid, and student loan programs rapidly replacing grant programs, several states successfully used student debt relief programs to fill local occupational shortages. But recently, policy-makers have become more ambitious with these plans. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has proposed a merit-based scholarship program that would give high-achieving Indiana high school graduates $20,000 a year for tuition and living expenses, as long as they promised to stay in the state for three years after graduation. U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), meanwhile, thinks that slowing brain drain is the federal government’s job. Under his New Homestead Act, the government would pay off college loans, provide tax credits, mortgage assistance, and business start-up funds for people who settle in depopulating rural counties.
There’s definitely an element of pork-barrel politics to Dorgan’s New Homestead Act. But short of declaring every day Christmas, it strikes me as our best available approach to slowing educational segregation. The problems associated with uneven talent flows are best addressed at the federal level, rather than the state level. Brain drain states’ educational investments subsidize growth in brain gain states, so it seems only fair that brain drain communities should help solve the problems that educational segregation creates. The New Homestead Act’s incentives probably aren’t enough to reverse educational segregation trends. (After all, how many 22-year-olds decide where to live based on their marginal income tax rate?) But for young adults who are committed to staying their hometowns, but wonder what good a college education can do them there, the New Homestead Act would be a boon, likely raising educational attainment rates and helping brain drain communities hold onto local talent. If we care about equality of opportunity in America, those are both important things to do.
Thurston Domina is a research associate at the Office of Population Research at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in sociology last year from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and is currently hunting for a tenure track job in a place with plenty of sidewalk cafes.Â
As someone who works with many states to improve education, I’m deeply troubled by the lack of our national progress -- and the missing urgency in postsecondary education -- toward improving students’ readiness for college and their prospects for completing college degrees.
Many in postsecondary education agree the readiness problem must be addressed, and a few states have taken strong early steps toward a solution. So, why haven’t we moved closer to solving the readiness problem?
The largest obstacle is that all of postsecondary education still does not see the readiness problem and the elements of addressing it in the same ways. Some question the size of the problem. Some fear that students’ access to higher learning could be at risk. Others fear that admissions would be affected, or believe that we can solve it simply by requiring more high school courses, or that readiness is more of a problem for high schools to solve.
We must come together in postsecondary education on many of these points if we are to prepare far greater numbers of students for college. ACT Inc. estimates that 60 percent to 70 percent of its test takers are not well-prepared for college study. Considering that only about half of students who enroll in college actually earn a degree or certificate, we must find ways to confront this problem. Research shows that most future job opportunities in the U.S. will require some level of college study or career training after high school.
A handful of states have taken action toward improving college readiness -- notably Arkansas, California, Indiana, Georgia, Kentucky and Texas, all of which have at least established specific state policy agendas for dealing with the problem.
Achieve Inc. has worked with many states through its American Diploma Project to promote the importance and help states take some early steps toward improving college readiness. The American Council on Education and the State Higher Education Executive Officers also are among the groups that have begun supporting the need to take action on readiness.
Most states, though, have neither committed to a specific agenda for improving college readiness nor made significant progress.
The lack of progress is particularly worrisome because many in postsecondary education agree that improving college readiness is doable, and we have a good idea of the practical steps our states and K-12 and postsecondary education systems need to take.
Briefly, these steps are needed:
Establish college-readiness standards in language arts and mathematics that are embraced by all of postsecondary education.
Ensure adoption of the college-readiness standards by the public K-12 schools.
Identify high school tests that measure students’ performance on the standards early in high school so they can find the extra help or courses they need before or during the senior year.
Make these tests part of the state’s K-12 school accountability system.
Prepare current and new teachers in the new standards and how to incorporate them into classroom instruction.
So, if we know how to address this college-readiness challenge, why is there such little progress across many of our states and systems of postsecondary education?
As we have reviewed state policies on college readiness in the past year, a time during which many states should have been making considerable progress on readiness, we’ve seen a lack of shared views within and across states of the magnitude and nature of the readiness problems we face. There is simply not the critical convergence of thinking around various elements of the readiness challenge that is necessary for all interests to establish or commit to a bold action agenda.
I remember attending a graduate school forum some years ago and hearing the noted organizational psychologist Karl E. Weick, now a professor at the University of Michigan, refer to higher education as a bunch of solutions in search of relevant problems. In other words, frequently the most difficult task is defining the problem clearly and in such ways that all of the key parties embrace the definition. The solutions are more apparent when the definition is clarified.
Here are some suggestions about how to bring consensus on some of the key points in defining the readiness challenge:
First, there needs to be agreement that all states face a significant readiness problem. Research shows that most students are not well-prepared to begin college study in language arts, mathematics or both. Even many students who are not required to take remedial courses are not well-prepared for college work, and many professors and college administrators know it.
Few states apply one set of readiness standards across all of postsecondary education, resulting in individual campuses or systems setting their own readiness or placement standards. Frequently, the standards are lower than they should be to indicate readiness. States that recognize the magnitude of the readiness problem are more likely to make readiness a priority and move toward improvement.
Second, postsecondary education needs to embrace the improvement of college readiness as a move in its own best interest -- and in the best interest of every state and the entire nation. Some officials in postsecondary education will question this statement. After all, remedial education still generates per-student funding, and many students who are not ready for college still make their way into degree-credit courses and generate funding, at least until they drop out. Their lack of readiness also provides an easy explanation for low college graduation rates. Having high proportions of students better prepared for college would eliminate a reason higher education currently uses to explain the low rates and would make higher education more accountable for its own effectiveness. Thus, making postsecondary education more accountable for postsecondary completion while maintaining access would force us to take readiness more seriously, because readiness is a key factor in degree and certificate completion.
Third, postsecondary education must not confuse the need to improve readiness with a threat to college admission or entry. Confusing readiness with admission will only keep states and postsecondary education systems from reaching consensus on making readiness a priority. Broad-access and open-door institutions (which serve a large majority of students across the nation) will not fully embrace a readiness initiative if they believe it will negatively affect access. Therefore, states need to assert that access and entry will be maintained regardless of the readiness agenda. Remedial education will continue -- only, we hope, a lot less of it, for more students will be prepared to begin college work.
This is the fourth and most essential point: Improving college readiness depends on strengthening high school graduation requirements and diplomas, but states and higher education systems cannot delay dealing with the readiness problem until these graduation requirements rise to meet college-readiness standards. All states need to raise high school graduation and diploma requirements, increase high school graduation rates, improve student achievement, and ensure that much higher proportions of students are ready for college upon completing high school. All of these areas need careful and diligent work from K-12 and postsecondary leaders working together. Rhetoric calling for high school diploma and graduation requirements and high-stakes graduation tests to be changed overnight to ensure college readiness for all students in the near-term may cause the public schools to question whether higher graduation requirements are realistic. Many states already struggle with low graduation rates in high schools, even under existing requirements and tests.
Fifth and related to the last point, for the readiness initiative to be taken seriously, the general claims that “all students need to be ready for college and careers” needs to be narrowed down, clarified and embraced widely. We must specify what readiness means in those essential skills that every person needs to learn further in school and at work -- reading, writing and math. Specified in terms of these learning skills, a case can be made that all high school graduates need these skills in collegiate academic programs, postsecondary career-preparation programs, or subsequent on-the-job training. In today’s economy, all students need a certain level of basic skills to pursue their goals.
Sixth, postsecondary education and the public schools need to recognize that meeting the college-readiness challenge will center on setting specific, measurable performance standards in key learning skills and having more students achieve them. There is still some confusion over this focus, especially in postsecondary education, which has little experience in performance standards-based education (in contrast to public schools since the 1990s). Postsecondary education tends to see readiness as synonymous with high school courses and grades or with ACT or SAT scores. While rigorous high school courses and good grades are necessary, they do not by any means ensure readiness. The national admissions tests may come closer to indicating student readiness in reading, writing and math, but they do not provide the precise and transparent focus on the core standards that high school teachers need to use in their classroom instruction.
Seventh, the best kind of readiness agenda will require a statewide effort that has all of postsecondary education acting as a body, agreeing on one set of readiness standards and uniformly communicating them to all high schools in a state. This statewide stance is needed to ensure that teachers in all of a state’s high schools know exactly what standards to help students meet. No state has managed yet to get all of postsecondary education -- universities and community colleges -- to speak with one voice. College readiness will be improved only when high school classroom teachers receive clear and concise signals about standards, backed by all of postsecondary education in their state. Statewide, state-level policy direction may be needed to provide the framework for public schools and postsecondary education to coordinate their efforts.
Reaching consensus across postsecondary education on the definition of the nation’s college-readiness problem will help states and college systems move toward solutions. All states need explicit readiness standards in reading and math, and they need to bring postsecondary education and K-12 schools together to develop such standards and to implement them. Getting more students ready for college and the work place will benefit our nation, every state, all students and postsecondary education.
Dave Spence is the president of the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization based in Atlanta that works with 16 member states to improve pre-K-12 and postsecondary education. He is a former vice chancellor of the California, Florida and Georgia state university systems, and he received the Virginia B. Smith Innovative Leadership Award in 2006 from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
“[By] the 1960s … we had reached the point where virtually all smart youngsters were going to college. Only the stupid or the poor were not going on to college.”
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in his essay "The Travail and Fall of Higher Education."
We can do little about the stupid except to hope that they decrease in number though socially acceptable methods, but the United States in the late 1960s established a goal of providing low-income students with 25 percent of the cost of their college education. This goal has, of course, been long-since abandoned by politicians of all subspecies, since loans don’t count as providing anything. Yet the underlying issue remains to be solved: How should a civilized society ensure that college-able young people are not thrown away because they are poor?
Poor, of course, also means something different now than it meant in 1966: College is priced higher today than it used to be. This is true not just in terms of sticker value, but in terms of the cost of college vs. the ability of people to earn money.
In 1974, a year of attendance at the University of Oregon (the flagship university in my state) cost what a student working minimum wage could earn working 27 hours a week, year-round. That is a lot of work for a full-time student during the school year, but was not impossible and could be offset by more work hours in the summer.
By 2004, a full-time student would have to work 46 hours a week to pay for the same attendance. That is essentially impossible, cannot be sufficiently offset by summer earnings and is the fundamental gap that policy makers either don’t understand or choose to ignore because it is too depressing and can’t be fixed.
It is therefore disingenuous for policy makers to repeat the tired theory that “if I worked my way through college, why can’t today’s students?” Because they can’t. There aren’t that many hours in the day.
A recent study by the Oregon Public Interest Research Group showed that from 1993 through 2004, average student loan debt increased by 115 percent, while the cost of living in the Willamette Valley, where most of Oregon’s college students live, went up only 32 percent. In addition, the percentage of public university students who had to borrow to attend college rose from 46 percent in 1993 to 62 percent in 2004. At private colleges, the figure was 72 percent.
Of those graduating from a public university, 37 percent could not make debt payments on the starting salary of a social worker, and 23 percent could not make such payments as a public school teacher. What this means is that the cost-benefit analysis of college is shifting in a way that discourages people from entering those professions. How is our society supposed to fill such jobs in the future? How will we succeed in meeting state and federal expectations that we will obtain and retain well-qualified teachers when even those who want to be teachers cannot afford to be?
The economics of the labor force and the economics of postsecondary education have both changed. Even at community colleges, tuition has gone up faster than any measure of personal income. Society has decided that providing access to college for people with incomes below the upper middle class costs more than it wants to pay for. The upper middle class won’t pay for the poor and lower middle class to go to college any more. The middle class can hardly afford it themselves, owing to cost and their own spending and saving habits.
Instead, we have a system of grants that are helpful but that do not cover the cost of tuition. These are limited to the lower income brackets. To this are added overlapping layers of subsidized and unsubsidized loan programs, all of which have the effect of requiring many students to become debtors at a level unimaginable 20 years ago, just to stay in school at all.
What can colleges do about this? Very little, unless they have the boldness to adopt differential pricing by major. State legislators and some federal officials hold hearings into the reasons why college costs have gone up so much, while simultaneously refusing to underwrite college degree programs at a level sufficient to cover the same proportion of costs as government did in the 1970s.
This disingenuousness has become so common that it has attained nearly a ritual quality. Only the sheer crudeness of political power over postsecondary education, especially in the public sector, keeps college leaders all over the country from pointing out more forcefully that Congress has no clothes, nor do many legislatures.
One other thing can be done, and that is to refocus institutional fund-raising efforts around the need to achieve independence from government handouts and subsidies. If the government is going to play its silly hide-the-facts game indefinitely, while students stagger under an increasing debt load, then colleges need to build their endowments to the point that they can uncouple themselves from government rules.
This is difficult and expensive, but it can be done. Even now, Harvard has decided to charge no tuition to students with a family income less than $60,000. That may not be very many students, given Harvard’s catchbasin, but it is a start. Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania have similar policies.
Can this approach work for the nation’s hundreds of large public universities and community colleges? In most cases, no. However, these schools are no longer what they were in many cases supposed to be: colleges accessible to anyone. They are relatively expensive, vaguely effective job-training programs mated to a mildly structured social life for teenagers, with a partially sealed superstructure of research faculty and graduate programs standing on stilts above the teeming swarm.
At smaller colleges that are focused on student learning, creative methods can be used. Two of the best-known schools that don’t charge tuition (or at which it is all covered by scholarships) are College of the Ozarks, a traditional four-year religious college in southern Missouri, and Deep Springs College, which operates a very small two-year college for men at a ranch in the desert of southeastern California.
Both of these are “work schools” in which students keep the school operating, especially in the case of Deep Springs, in which the students actually do much of the work running the ranch. This is a model that should be tried elsewhere, as this excerpt from the Deep Springs Web site in July 2006 shows:
“In the past 10 years, 16% of students transferred to Harvard, 13% to the University of Chicago, 7% to Yale and 7% to Brown. Other schools frequently attended after Deep Springs include Columbia, Oxford, Berkeley, Cornell and Stanford.In the past five years Deep Springers have won the following national scholarship competitions:
The Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship (2)
The Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship (1)
The Rhodes Scholarship (1)
The Harry S. Truman Scholarship (5)
The Morris Udall Scholarship (1)
... Over the long term, over two-thirds of our alumni have earned graduate degrees, with over half holding a doctorate (M.D., J.D., Ph.D., etc.) as their terminal degree.”
The student body consists of 26 students, which gives you an idea of what can happen at a very small school where quality means something. College of the Ozarks and Berea College, in Kentucky (once led by Robert Maynard Hutchins’s father), are somewhat larger, but have for many years shown that the “work school” concept is effective.
One additional step can be taken to realign access and cost with external reality: adopt market-based pricing. Given the significant difference between the ability of students who earn different degrees to repay huge loan burdens, it is time for a serious discussion of charging less for classes in English and History at the undergraduate level than for classes in business or computer science. This would also require adjusting faculty pay scales, with pay for geography professors dropping by ten percent and pay for nursing professors going up by 15 percent, to pick numbers arbitrarily.
I am told that having such differential pay scales would be horribly destructive to faculty morale and institutional cohesion. On the contrary, I think it would release a lot of pressure within institutions, pressure that finds other methods of reaching the surface. Why should universities think themselves immune from the economic realities under which all other organizations work? Even if the transition period were difficult, the positive effect on students would be so great (in financial terms) that any university that is truly student-oriented should take the idea seriously.
Private colleges with any capacity to build an endowment should be able to focus resources this way. Instead of adding more buildings, more programs or more sports, systematically devote income to tuition offsets until the cost of attendance is a minor issue for anyone who might want to go. If we are serious about basing access on academic merit, we must stop pretending that the financial wall does not exist. It does, and with a very few exceptions, merit by itself is not enough to overcome the money wall.
Alan L. Contreras has been administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a unit of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, since 1999. His views do not necessarily represent those of the commission.
Conflicting pressures have put urban public institutions of higher education that serve large numbers of low-income and students of color in a straitjacket.
Major cities in the U.S. generally have higher concentrations of poverty, communities of color and immigrants than the suburbs do. The problems facing higher education in cities dovetail with other urban problems such as the quality of urban K-12 schools and the socioeconomic status of their students.
Consequently, state-supported urban institutions are being asked -- and have moral and long-term economic imperatives -- to provide more academic and student support services to students coming through pre-collegiate educational pipelines that have not prepared them for college than is true for many other kinds of colleges.
Compounding the problem, we are being presented with increasing performance and accountability mandates. All of this is happening at a time when state funding for those institutions is declining in a scandalous way, yet the pressure on them to keep tuition low is increasing. In short, we are being asked to do more with far fewer resources than ever before.
And the impact will inevitably fall onto our students, those who need it most. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said it herself in May: “In too many of our cities, the reality faced by minority and low-income kids is shocking.” Citing urban “dropout factories” and a 50 percent dropout rate for African-American, Latino and Native Americans, Spellings said, “We must ensure the same opportunities available to kids in the suburbs are available to kids in the city. If we don't, we will most certainly become a poorer, more divided nation of haves and have-nots.”
Parallels in Inequality
Many of our urban secondary schools are abysmal, it’s true. Equally unjustifiable, but perhaps no surprise, is that urban institutions of higher education have begun to endure challenges and inequities that mirror those faced by our feeder schools and districts.
In high schools, white students tend to be concentrated in well-performing schools in the suburbs while urban school districts, filled with lower-income and students of color, are deteriorating. At the postsecondary level, white students crowd the more selective state flagship and research universities. Meanwhile, if they go to college at all, students from traditionally underserved backgrounds often attend institutions with less stringent admission standards and lower retention and graduation rates, including community colleges and urban colleges and universities. The rate of college enrollment in the college-age population in cities is about half of what it is in the suburbs.
Options for low-income and students of color, in high school and college, are becoming separate but not equal to those for white students.
Colorado is a prime example of this distributing paradox. We currently rank in the top five per capita for college-degree holders, yet we’re importing our college graduates. The state ranks near the bottom in the number of low-income students and those from underrepresented backgrounds who go to college.
Part of this results from an educational pipeline in Denver that is more than just leaky; it is spitting out young people at an alarming rate. For example, roughly 30 percent of Denver Public Schools’ Latinos graduate from high school; in contrast, 70 percent of whites do. The student-of-color population, which is 80 percent at Denver Public Schools, drops to 48 percent at Community College of Denver, then to 24 percent at Metropolitan State College of Denver, my institution, which has the largest student-of-color population of any four-year institution in Colorado. In fact, Metro State has more students of color than the University of Colorado at Boulder and Colorado State University combined.
The Conventional Urban Student
Ethnic diversity has become the holy grail of colleges and universities; everyone is trying to get it. A high-achieving high school student of color is the most sought-after demographic in the college applicant pool. And our more prestigious schools are working to increase their matriculation rates of these students.
But what about the conventional student of color who graduates from an urban high school and whose achievements are more modest? These are the students -- place-bound, often of limited economic status and whose preparation for college is less rigorous -- who are largely served by our public urban institutions. In sheer numbers, they dwarf the students of color who attend the more prestigious institutions.
Urban low-income and students of color are coming to college with severe academic deficiencies, particularly in the areas of writing, mathematics and science. Furthermore, many students from economically challenged backgrounds lack college-going family precedent or role models. It is critical that these students have access to full-time faculty of the same ethnic background to serve as peer mentors, helping them navigate the transition from high school to college.
Postsecondary institutions serving large numbers of low-income and students of color are implementing various strategies to address these students’ academic deficiencies. Enhanced orientation programs, peer counselors, mentors, full-time faculty who teach classes at the freshman and sophomore level, learning communities, increased collaboration with urban high school districts and improved coordination with community colleges are all being implemented or enhanced to provide much-needed support for this cohort of students. However, many of these programs are in jeopardy because of limitations in state funding.
This is the case in point: Urban institutions are being asked to do more and more with less and less.
The ‘90s was a decade of dramatic growth in state revenues, yet there was a simultaneous shrinking of their colleges’ share of state budgets, as more programs and services began to compete with higher education for funding.
From 1970 to 2000, government appropriations per student for public higher education institutions increased 3 percent in constant dollars. During the same period, tuition and fees per student increased 99 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In Colorado, the percentage of the state budget going to higher education dropped from 22.4 percent in 1983 to 7.5 percent in 2007.
At the same time that state funding for higher education has been decreasing, the call for “accountability” in higher education is on the rise. State legislatures are expressing more interest in investing in the explicit results that come from public higher-education institutions, rather than investing in higher education itself. For instance, at a recent summit on higher education in Colorado attended by leaders from all the colleges, one proposal put forth would tie supplemental funding to schools proving they are more efficient than their peers and graduating better students.
With state funding squeezed tighter and tighter, many colleges across the country have been able to maintain the status quo only by raising student tuition and fees. However, in urban institutions that serve larger populations of low-income and students of color, the combination of decreased state funding and the continued imperative for lower tuition means a smaller pool of financial resources from which to draw to educate some of our neediest populations. Some institutions, like Metro State, have a statutory obligation to be accessible and keep tuition low with no corollary mandate for adequate funding to provide necessary wrap-around services for students from underserved backgrounds.
Additionally, in Colorado the relative funding by type of higher education institution has shifted. A recent comparison by the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee showed that in the last six years the amount of money, in general fund and tuition per student full-time equivalency, went up for all institutions in Colorado except Metro State, with only a negligible increase for the community colleges.
These relative disparities occurred despite the fact that the community colleges serve more urban and ethnic minority students than the four-year colleges combined, and Metro State is Colorado’s largest urban institution, most diverse four-year institution and educator of the second-largest undergraduate population in the state.
The Joint Budget Committee wrote, “(T)here has been a reallocation of resources among the higher education institutions, whether part of a clearly articulated statewide strategy or a happenstance of many unrelated decisions.”
State legislatures need to start addressing these kinds of inequities, and soon. Leaders in public higher education need to work together to create shared state visions among the research universities, the comprehensive colleges and the urban institutions, particularly to address how states are going to meet the needs of the growing segment of the population that come from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds.
This may seem to be just an urban problem, but it’s not because ultimately it affects all of society on a social and economic level.
For example, college graduates earn almost twice that of high school graduates, have greater purchasing power and produce higher tax revenue. In Colorado, if low-income and students of color graduated and were employed at the same rate as other students, it would annually generate an estimated $967 million in additional tax revenue, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher education. Obviously, it is through education that these at-risk students are able to lift themselves to a higher socioeconomic level. Otherwise, their options are limited to clawing and scraping their way ahead in menial jobs or worse.
The problems in our urban K-12 schools are deep and entrenched; they have been there for decades, for a multitude of reasons. Today our public urban baccalaureate colleges are headed down the same path, thanks to the lack of funding, an increasing number of students needing remedial coursework and the shrinking pipeline to good education available to low-income and students of color in this country. If these issues in higher education are not addressed now, they will become as intractable as those at the “dropout factories” Spellings derides.
One is left to wonder whether the precipitous decline of our public urban institutions of higher education would be allowed to happen if the student populations at these institutions were more affluent and more white.
Stephen Jordan is president of Metropolitan State College of Denver.
On September 24, a perceptive federal judge in California pointed out the obvious and cleared a lot of thick overgrowth from the landscape of postsecondary oversight in the United States. In brief, Judge Margaret Morrow concluded that a state cannot treat regional accreditors differently from each other in order to favor colleges based in the state over those based elsewhere.
Judge Morrow’s preliminary opinion in Daghlian v. DeVry, with which I agree for the most part, concludes that differences among regional accreditors are insufficient to sustain California’s contention that the state can in effect exempt locally based colleges from state oversight because they are accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), while requiring colleges based elsewhere to get state approval to operate because they are accredited by a different regional accreditor.
This decision may cut part of the knot that has plagued proposed revisions of California postsecondary approval laws. WASC has been actively opposing some of the changes, even though they don’t affect WASC schools, apparently on a camel’s nose theory: any hint of state interference in collegiate self-governance must be sprayed with hot and cold running lobbyists. Ultimately, WASC is lobbying the tide not to come in.
The DeVry case may therefore serve to drag into the open one of the less-well-understood aspects of education law and policy. One of the commonest fallacies in higher education, and one which is amazingly ill-understood even by professional educators, is that colleges get to offer degrees because their accreditor allows them to. Not so. Colleges, including private ones, get to offer degrees because state governments give them the authority to do so.
Let me say that again for maximum clarity: Private colleges in the United States have no inherent right to issue degrees. That right comes to them through a grant of authority from a state government. With the exception of Congress and Indian tribes, I know of no other source for degree authority in the United States. The authority may come as a charter, a constitutional provision or a statute, but it must have an origin in state law. No accreditor can give that authority and no accreditor can take it away. Nor can the federal government do either, except for its own colleges.
The federal government recognizes this area of state supremacy in its regulations governing accreditors. A federally recognized accreditor is prohibited by federal rules from accrediting a college unless that college has appropriate state authority to issue degrees prior to accreditation. That is why one current California proposal to allow schools accredited by the Western Association to operate without a separate grant of state authority cannot work. This chicken chasing its own egg is a turkey. Judge Morrow’s preliminary decision serves to add top-quality stuffing to this defunct bureaucratic poultry.
California (and every other state) must formally give authority to issue degrees to every college based in the state that wants to grant degrees. Instead, it seems simpler for states to just punt the function of postsecondary approval to the local accreditor. Sorry, it can’t be done that way. Likewise, accreditors have no ability to grant degree authority to a foreign school -- only the government of the nation, or its properly designated authority, can do that.
In theory, every state diligently determines which colleges can issue degrees and, ideally, exercises at least some baseline quality control. In practice, this does not always happen, and in California today, it can’t happen, for there is no state agency in existence to issue the approval. The consequences are significant.
Right now as I write, it is impossible to start a new degree-granting institution in California, because any such institution requires state approval. It requires state approval not only to get accredited, but to have any legal authority to issue degrees. And it can’t get this approval. On these grounds alone, California is flirting with a Commerce Clause problem: The legislature has de facto protected all existing California colleges from competition. Florida tried this a few years ago and was squashed in federal court.
Also, any California institution that comes up for renewal by its current accreditor has to show that it has current state approval to issue degrees. Some won’t be able to. Even if all parties accepted the convenient but illegal fiction that WASC can stand in for the state, Judge Morrow has killed any attempt by the state to claim that WASC accreditation works as a stopgap but that accreditation by the North Central Association’s Higher Learning Commission doesn’t.
With luck, one side effect of the DeVry case will be to hose out once and for all some of the fictions that states, colleges and accreditors have erected around the curiously opaque process of college and program approval. When the false fronts have collapsed -- the collegial slurry panned for its limited nuggets and the agencies of various states (e.g., loopholed Alabama, grandfathered New Mexico, AWOL Hawaii and disinterested Idaho) subjected to the need to perform -- we can hope for useful changes.
What should emerge from this helpful legal reality check on the role of states and accreditors? First, absolute clarity that each state is legally responsible for the private colleges based there. That includes program quality. No more hibernating under the accreditorial dust storm. Accreditors are owned by their dues-paying member schools and should never be expected to serve as enforcement arms of state or federal governments. They are arms of the colleges, dedicated to advancing the interests of their member schools. There is nothing wrong with that, but let’s give it the right name: a club of schools with similar interests and approaches, not an enforcement body (certainly not of federal standards), and not remotely capable of handling student complaints.
States that have perched primly in the back pews, hands clasped and eyes downcast while the U.S. Department of Education brutalizes accreditors into doing oversight work for which they are unsuited, unfunded and unprepared, need to stop shirking their duties and hoping that the feds will do it for them. Who on earth, looking with unclouded eyes at the federal government, would entrust it with quality control?
I have argued for some time that the Department of Education should make its own decisions about financial aid eligibility based on its own standards, properly enforced by itself. That is a different and appropriate role: You want our money? Here are our rules.
Right now, the Department of Education is incompetent, in the technical sense, to perform college oversight. They can deal, sort of, with the most obvious cases, but they have no real structure in place for meaningful Title IV eligibility oversight. Regional accreditors need not fear losing their recognition, since the feds have no replacement process in place. Therefore regional accreditors and the larger national and specialized accreditors can ignore most federal noises.
Finally, the federal government has no business assuming a duty that constitutionally belongs to the states. The federal government would love to move in on territory that has belonged to the states for over 200 years. It is trying to persuade accreditors to do the dirty work. The states should not let this happen. If Judge Morrow’s case is nominally about the comparability of accreditors, its real impact may be on states that have taken their responsibilities lightly for too long.
Alan Contreras works for the State of Oregon; his views do not necessarily reflect those of the state. His blog is The Oregon Review.