Chancellor Nancy Zimpher of the State University of New York (SUNY) has added a new word to Wikipedia. While she was an English major in college, creating new words is not typically how she spends her time. But this particular word, “systemness,” has uncommon utility for her, as she presides over a 64-campus system of public higher education in a time of austerity politics. In fact, she thinks that proof of this concept has the potential to ensure opportunities for affordable postsecondary education not only in New York, but in states around the country, including my adopted state of Wisconsin.
By rethinking the traditional models of governance in which institutions exist primarily for themselves and in pursuit of their own prestige, Zimpher is encouraging colleges and universities to gather on a broader, connected playing field where serving students is the name of the game.
While this idea might sound old-fashioned to some people, given that it doesn’t explicitly involve MOOCs or other “hot” ideas, I find much to like about it. As I listened to Zimpher talk through her ideas during a recent visit to UW-Madison, I was struck by the familiarity of this territory. Ever since writing my dissertation on “swirling students” (those who attend multiple colleges and universities in pursuit of a degree), I have put the phrase “system of higher education” in quotations because institutional culture in the United States hardly reflects systems thinking at all.
Each school acts in a hypercompetitive, prestige- and resource-seeking space that feels almost Darwinian -- each striving to be the best and allowing those falling behind to simply die away. Given the tremendous potential supply of college-goers most public institutions enjoy, their adherence to this approach is remarkable. Instead of flagships working in tandem with sister schools to find places for each of the state’s high school graduates, they try to hog as many resources as possible, leaving other campuses to struggle with less. The greater good suffers.
So in theory, the idea of systemness sounds nice, promoting collaboration across campuses to coordinate program offerings and services, striving for common goals, and working together to count student successes as mutually beneficial. It is an idea borrowed from health care delivery, where so many notions of reform for higher education seem to develop.
But I have to wonder, who really wins? Do the smaller public comprehensives or community colleges really gain, or do the flagships and large urban universities continue to dominate? I am skeptical. Without specific provisions to protect against it, I am betting winners in the current system still manage to take all. It’s just too easy, even in a connected system, to downplay the players with less prestige. In other words, the system can bring everyone to the same table, but those whose voices are privileged, unless actions are specifically taken to disregard or reduce that privilege, will drive the conversation.
To be honest, really reaching the goals of systemness requires that Zimpher do more than coordinate SUNY’s 64 campuses. She must grab ahold of the current prestige drivers (inputs like student test scores, research dollars, percent of tenured faculty) and flip them, elevating the work of schools that really achieve New York’s goals. Since resources are obviously constrained, now and in the foreseeable future, this may mean pulling back a bit on the funds now flowing to the currently prioritized institutions.
Instead, the colleges and universities that welcome all state residents at whatever quality of education they managed to secure in high school and help them learn at the next level, the universities whose faculty go out and actively solve the problems New Yorkers confront in their daily lives, and the institutions that produce the most effective teachers who help New York’s kids flourish — these places should realize elevated voices and status in a renewed system.
Such institutions reject the notion of “higher” education and instead work at the “postsecondary” level -- they are workhorses in the creation of citizens for active democracies, picking up directly where high schools leave off (and indeed, wherever they leave off). Per-student funding needs to be higher where this kind of work occurs, not lower. Faculty should be tenured primarily for their excellence in teaching and service to the state, rather than the number of research articles published in barely-read academic volumes. And the value of degrees produced should be measured in terms of meeting the needs of a democracy, which requires teachers and social workers and writing tutors, not solely the high-tech employees that propel today’s economy.
It’s a big, audacious task and a controversial one. Zimpher seems inclined to try to do it really well — for example, next month she’s hosting a conference where both proponents and critics of systemness will get together to argue over the concept’s value. Personally, I’m rooting for Zimpher and her word — if she can make it happen, the truly student-focused educators among us who reside in the nation’s so-called systems of public higher education will applaud.
Sara Goldrick-Rab is associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Academics have historically balked when confronted with suggestions that the education system is a business and should be treated as such. They speculate that placing a monetary value on an entity with a deep, intellectual purpose diminishes the overall significance of learning. They claim that you cannot quantify the positive benefits of a degree.
But this is not the case. Education, particularly higher education, is a business, and one of the few left in this country that guarantees a positive return. To call education a business isn’t to undermine its importance to our country and citizens — it provides the proof that our higher education systems should be a top priority, if not the top priority, for government spending.
Quite simply, the future of our economy depends on well-educated workers. More than 59 percent of jobs today require some postsecondary education, yet these degrees are becoming increasingly difficult to attain. We must evaluate higher education based on the return institutions generate for the country both in terms of absolute dollars and competitiveness.
Public higher education depends on state and federal budget allocations. We have a choice as to how we distribute these public funds. By continually prioritizing Social Security, health care, and defense spending over education, the government is indirectly hindering an increase of college graduates that our economy so desperately needs. By 2018, 63 percent of jobs will require a college degree, but we are likely to fall 3 million graduates short of what the market demands, according to a recent study.
Today, the federal government spends approximately $30 billion annually subsidizing enrollment in higher education institutions, with most of the money spent on financial aid, and roughly 8 percent going to grants to institutions. According to a Cato Institute Study, the federal government also provides approximately $30 billion to U.S. universities to fund research projects. While these are certainly hefty investments, combined it means the government only contributes 14 percent of the total dollars — $420 billion — that flow into higher education institutions.
Higher education is the best investment we can make for our country’s future. But are we doing enough to support educational institutions and students? Higher education provides annuity-like returns for 40 years — the working years of most graduates. Over the course of an average lifetime, a holder of a four-year-equivalent degree (the weighted average of associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, professional, and doctorate degrees) gives the government $471,000 in income, payroll, property, and sales tax revenue. You certainly can quantify the value of a degree: that’s more than twice what it would collect in lifetime taxes from a high school graduate lacking a college degree, according to a University of Maine study.
In California, for instance, every dollar the state invests in higher education leads to a $3 net return on investment. The University of California System (UC) contributes more than $14 billion in California economic activity and more than $4 billion in tax revenues each year, not to mention the impact from UC-related spinoffs. Further, the California State System (CSU) ensures businesses get the trained workforce they require — CSUs graduate 45 percent of the state’s computer and electrical engineers. Despite this, the UC and CSU schools have seen a 28 percent decline in state support between fiscal years 2007-2008 and 2011-2012, according to a study done by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.
Higher education graduates help fuel innovation that creates new jobs. Research universities contribute new technologies — from Internet search algorithms to genetic coding — and file thousands of patents annually. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of February 2009 provided some funds for higher education (mainly to prevent states from reallocating education dollars for other purposes). However, these funds are miniscule — less than a percent — in comparison to the total funding for research universities, according to the Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board.
If the government should plateau on its investment in higher education, we’ve raised the risk level of our current investment. When endowments are down and state governments cut funding to state universities, tuition rates rise and the likelihood of students not graduating increases. According to the American Institutes for Research, students who started bachelor degree programs in the fall of 2002 but failed to graduate in six years cost the students approximately $3.8 billion in lost income in 2010 alone.
A recent Inside Higher Edblog post discusses an interesting approach to lowering tuition costs while increasing the numbers of students able to enroll in universities and earn degrees, using a simple supply and demand model. Approaching the problem from an economic standpoint does not undermine the importance of receiving an education; it highlights its very necessity, and makes it more accessible.
As taxpayers, we need to be asking about our tax dollars’ return on investment. From 1987 to 2006, we doubled federal support for Medicaid in state budgets — increasing these funds from 10.2 percent to 21.5 percent — but decreased federal expenditures for higher education from 12.3 percent of state budgets to 10.4 percent, according to a University of California study.
We need to have a conversation about education similar to the national debate we had about the automotive and financial industries. We should not view education expenditures as discretionary dollars that we can increase and decrease at will, but rather as the most dependable, profitable, and ultimately, important investment our government can make.
Mehdi Maghsoodnia (@mmaghsoodnia) is CEO of Rafter, which provides software tools for cloud-based distribution of course materials. Rafter is also the parent company of textbook rental service Bookrenter.com.