In March, the new governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett, announced a 2011-12 budget that, when combined with the loss of federal stimulus money, would reduce funding to public schools by $1.2 billion dollars, and funding to higher education by $649 million. My own institution, Pennsylvania State University, stood to lose $169 million, or about 51 percent of its state appropriation. As our president, Graham Spanier, pointed out, such cuts "would be the largest percentage reduction to public higher education in this nation's history."
Other states, of course, have faced similar budget shortfalls and have also responded with cuts to education, especially higher education. What happened next in Pennsylvania, though, dramatizes the new and distressing choices that states will have to face, and institutions of higher education have to live with, so long as the economy drifts along, state finances remain a sea of red ink, and tax increases are off the table.
In Pennsylvania, deciding on a budget is more like a game of bridge than a game of solitaire. The governor merely makes the opening bid. Ultimately, the legislature gets to review and pass the budget, which then goes to the governor for approval. So when leaders of the state and state-related institutions of higher education learned of the governor’s proposed cuts, they descended upon the state capital to plead their case to legislators. And it worked. Sort of.
In early May, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, controlled by Republicans, offered a revised budget. The good news? The House Republicans restored $243 million of the $1.2 billion proposed cuts to public schools, and $370 million of the $649 million that higher education stood to lose under the governor’s budget. Instead of losing 51 percent of its state appropriation, for example, Penn State would lose 21 percent, which is still bad, but not historically bad. The bad news was that in order to keep overall spending in line with the number the governor proposed, House Republicans made cuts elsewhere in the budget, mostly to public welfare programs.
Republicans claim that much of the funds cut from public welfare would come mainly from reducing fraud, waste, and abuse, but many are skeptical that instances of fraud, waste, and abuse add up to the hundreds of millions of dollars that would be taken from these programs. Rather, many observers agree that the cuts to the Department of Public Welfare would mean, as one journalist recently itemized them, reductions in "the amount of money for hospitals that treat the poor, families seeking subsidized child care, shelters that aid women and the homeless and counseling for families, children, and the mentally ill."
If this budget passes, and these cuts do in fact go deeper than just fraud, waste, and abuse, then faculty, staff, and students at institutions of higher education in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania face a potentially Dickensian scene. Under the House budget, they will likely still suffer from layoffs, the closing of academic programs, larger class sizes, and perhaps even higher tuition levels. But whatever cuts and inconveniences those in higher education face will be minimized only because somewhere a sexually abused child, instead of receiving immediate counseling, would go on a waiting list to receive counseling. Or because somewhere a low-income family would have to scrape together a co-payment for a medical procedure they used to not have to pay. Or because somewhere a family lost its home to foreclosure because the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network could not provide them with a lawyer. Or because somewhere someone gets dropped from the Medicaid rolls. You have to wonder how we will live with ourselves.
Of course, the Pennsylvania budget process merely highlights the kind of zero-sum decisions that characterize any allocation of public money. When resources are limited, even worthy endeavors — higher education, rape counseling, services to persons with disabilities — will have to compete for funding. Still, such competitions usually remain tactfully concealed behind closed doors. When, however, they are made public and you can see horses being traded, it is hard to feel good about support for one worthy cause when it means taking resources from another.
Indeed, my own interest in the dispute, beyond the considerable self-interest of seeing funding restored to my institution of higher education, lies in how the debate about the Pennsylvania budget has pitted education against welfare. In an op-ed for our local newspaper, Representative Mike Hanna, a Democrat, called the Republican budget "a shell game, filled with false choices: Do we choose to hurt kids in public schools or seniors in nursing homes? Do we choose to hurt college students or single mothers? Do we choose to cut teaching jobs or nursing home jobs?"
Others sounded a similar theme. "We need to advance this process by not trading one child need for another child need," Joan L. Benso, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, said. And Pennsylvania Democrat Frank Dermody helpfully offered the chestnut everyone was probably already thinking. "It’s simply not right," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "It's nothing more than robbing Peter to pay Paul."
Dermody and others, though, are more right than they know. In paying for education by robbing from welfare, legislators in Pennsylvania have merely solved one problem by creating another. But the problems are not as separate as they might seem. You cannot rob Peter to pay Paul because, in this case at least, Peter is Paul.
Let me put it another way. In the course of completing a recent book, I immersed myself in the literature of the educational achievement gap: the persistent differences in educational performance that separate various gender, racial, and socioeconomic groups. And what I learned is that to an astonishing extent, a child's educational outcome depends upon his or her family's income. Don’t think so? Consider the results from the latest round of major international tests of student learning. As Joanne Barkin recently reported, students in the United States who attend schools where the poverty rate is less than 10 percent ranked first in reading, first in science, and third in math.
Students who attended schools where the poverty rate was slightly higher, between 10 and 25 percent, still ranked first in reading and science. But as the poverty rate of a school rose, its students performed worse and worse. For example, 20 percent of all U.S. schools have poverty rates over 75 percent. Few countries can match those rates. And it is those schools — and those students — that drive down the average ranking of American students, and it is those middling rankings that send educational reformers into a panic.
Despite what those reformers would have you believe, though, the United States does not have an education problem. It has a poverty problem. People grow up to be poor because they did not get an education. But it is also the case that they did not get an education because they grew up poor. Something about growing up in poverty — the stress, the low birth weights, the parenting style, and later the doubts about being able to afford college — makes acquiring an education difficult if not impossible. Still don’t think so? How about the fact that of all those who earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24, only 1 out of every 10 will come from families in the lowest quartile of income? By contrast, over half will come from families in the top quartile.
So critics like Mike Hanna are right to call the revised Pennsylvania budget "a shell game, full of false choices." Except the choices are false not because we should not have to make them, or because — as Hanna asserts — there is enough revenue to meet both needs. The choices are false because if you care about education, enough to think that draconian cuts to it should be avoided, you have to care about people’s welfare as well. In addition to offering much-needed services, social welfare programs like the ones under threat also allow low- and middle-income families to keep the money they would otherwise spend on those needed services. In addition to helping people, they also help people’s bottom lines, in some cases keeping people out of poverty or making poverty more manageable. Conversely, when families do not get the help they need, or are made poorer when they have to pay out of pocket for the help they need, their lives, including the educational lives of their children, suffer.
Unfortunately, there is no painless solution to the budget dilemma, either in Pennsylvania or elsewhere. Representative Hanna and other Democrats want to tap a $500 million budget surplus that, incredibly, the commonwealth collected over and beyond what it expected to. In theory, it would also collect these funds next year. The governor and House Republicans, however, oppose drawing on this so-called rainy day fund. My former state, Illinois, raised income taxes to meet its budget needs, but that seems unlikely in Pennsylvania, where the governor has pledged not to raise taxes. Many people in the commonwealth support taxes on the highly profitable — and environmentally suspect — natural gas industry, but that too seems unlikely.
Having recently passed the House, the Pennsylvania budget will soon make its way to the Senate. Here is hoping that legislators understand that education and welfare go hand in hand — and that in robbing from one to pay the other, you really end up robbing from both.
Public research universities face enormous challenges in the 21st century: waning fiscal support, a loss of public confidence, and a persistent lack of diversity. Perhaps no challenge is more compelling, however, than the obligation to serve society. The time has come for increased commitment to and removal of barriers preventing collaborative, interdisciplinary, socially relevant research and learning.
Unfortunately, too often service is portrayed exclusively as "volunteerism," a university's third function, and interdisciplinary scholarship is viewed as less rigorous than and at odds with disciplinary knowledge. So conceived, service is destined to take a back seat to research and teaching and interdisciplinary initiatives at best become supplements or add-ons which compete for time and money and are incapable of fixing structural flaws in the way knowledge is arranged and delivered. The result is a lost opportunity for "academic engagement": collaboration across disciplines and partnerships with the community that might produce solutions to society's most vexing problems.
Pursuing academic engagement necessitates radically rethinking "service" and "knowledge," finding innovative mechanisms to organize and leverage academe's intellectual capital to transform lives for the benefit of society. It requires us to acknowledge that a university's collective wisdom is among its most precious assets -- anchored to, but not in competition with, basic research and disciplinary knowledge -- and that part of the significance of such wisdom is tied to its use.
While redefining and implementing more robust notions of service and knowledge will be arduous, the payoff could be enormous. Fortunately, there is a movement afoot at many public research institutions across the nation, a movement to bring higher education out of the 19th into the 21st century. With rising tuition, limited access to the nation's best universities, and increasingly complex social problems, many recognize that the need for public institutions to find meaningful ways to serve the citizens of their states is more important than ever. Universities must fulfill a social compact with their states.
At my own institution, the University of Texas at Austin, a critical mass of faculty embrace this compact: academics best described as "intellectual entrepreneurs," citizen-scholars supplying more than narrow, theoretical disciplinary knowledge. They exemplify academic engagement, taking to heart the ethical obligation to contribute to society, to both discover and put to work knowledge that makes a difference.
Among them are a philosopher helping to increase the role played by ethics in corporate decision making, a neurobiologist and pharmacologist struggling to bring personal and public policies in line with scientific knowledge about alcohol addiction, a theater historian attempting to use performance as a mechanism through which ordinary people can change their lives, and a literary scholar who uses poetry to enable those in business and government to imagine what is possible.
In 2004-5 these and several other faculty, along with distinguished members of the community (including the U.S. secretary of commerce, the chancellor the University of Texas System, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and the executive VP and COO of a major health-care network), contributed to a series in the local newspaper exploring how to engender greater connections between the university and community to address society's most troublesome issues.
The arguments advanced by these writers may reflect some of what President Larry Faulkner had in mind in his February 13, 2005 speech the American Council on Education, when he called for a new "social compact." Confronting this quest to contribute to society and realize the ethical imperative to make a difference, however, is a stark reality: Inflexible administrative structures, historically embedded practices, status quo thinking and inertia. Until these obstacles are overcome, the current retreat from public life will not be arrested and the new social compact envisioned by President Faulkner will not be realized.
Among the daunting challenges confronting universities aspiring to intellectual entrepreneurship and the resulting academic engagement are these:
How do scholars, who live primarily in a world of ideas, acquire the practical (e.g., rhetorical, business, design, technological, etc.) tools needed to develop and sustain projects requiring acceptance and investment by audiences both inside and outside the university -- skills typically disassociated from the scholarly enterprise?
How can faculty integrate, synthesize and unify knowledge to permit solution of complex social, civic and ethical problems? This is an enormous challenge in an academic culture that the former Brown University President Vartan Gregorian says "respects specialists and suspects generalists." How do we ensure the continued proliferation of specialized knowledge, while concurrently encouraging renaissance thinking?
How can faculty who engage in public scholarship -- who undertake projects like those pursued by the philosopher, literary scholar, theatre historian, neurobiologist and pharmacologist, described above -- flourish given restricted measurements for assessing performance enforced by universities and academic disciplines (e.g., journal publications tailored to small and insular audiences)? Incentive systems not only fail to encourage public scholarship, but may actually devalue research that doesn't fit neatly into the academic geography of one's home discipline and simultaneously contributes to society. What changes to institutional reward structures are requisite for academic engagement?
How can faculty maintain standards of academic integrity and objectivity, while participating in community projects in which they may become ideologically vested, serve as change agents or directly profit?
How should academic institutions adjust their methods for discovering and imparting knowledge in an ever-changing world? Because historically original thought, lone discovery and disciplinary contribution have been considered more important than team work, what changes are needed to address effectively 21st century problems? Complex issues such as health, the environment, education, cultural diversity and others demand multi-institutional, cross-disciplinary and collaborative forms of investigation.
How can academic engagement be achieved in an environment maintaining that research is two-dimensional, either basic or applied, a long-held, rigid dichotomy frequently invoked to deter faculty from venturing too far from theoretical knowledge?
How might the entrepreneurial thinking that universities successfully deploy for technology transfer analogously be used to empower all of the arts and sciences, to unleash a university-wide spirit of intellectual entrepreneurship? How might this agenda be pursued while remaining vigilant to the sanctity of the academic enterprise?
How can the university better apply its morally centered quest for truth to matters of public concern? How can it encourage public deliberation that benefits from many different opinions and challenges to received wisdom, without being perceived as relativistic or unpatriotic?
These are but a few challenges to intellectual entrepreneurship. Answers to these questions, which for so long have remained unarticulated, will not be easy to come by and cannot possibly be answered via the lone contribution of an essayist. Because awareness and diagnosis of the problem is the first step to solution, university presidents and their community stakeholders must encourage faculty to begin a rigorous and thoughtful conversation about how to make the academy -- culture that far too often resists change -- more responsive to the needs of society and structured in a manner best suited for the 21st century knowledge industry.
It is time for us to reflect on what must be done to harness and integrate the vast intellectual assets of universities as a lever for social good -- about what it will take to bring academics together on equal footing with those in the public and private sectors, collaboratively producing, jointly owning and using knowledge to change people's lives and improve the human condition.
To be clear, this quest to build a new social compact must not become a platform for disgruntled and gadfly faculty -- something that, as we witnessed in the debates of prior decades about teaching versus research, will make it far too easy for the reticent and nay sayers among us to dismiss the call for intellectual entrepreneurship as merely the diatribe of failed scholars who would have us abandon the research focus of universities. Instead, this topic should be pursued vigorously by our institutions' most prominent researchers who, while understanding the distinctive mission of academic institutions, also recognize the need to build connections across disciplines and between the university and community, and who refuse to apologize for being scholars. After all, creating a culture of academic engagement requires accountability and collaborative problem-solving in forthright public exchanges about how to enact change.
Public intellectual practice is a noble quest -- one that doesn't inherently or automatically require us to choose between a commitment either to research or service or between disciplinary and interdisciplinary knowledge. President Faulkner's suggestion of the need for a new social compact, therefore, may be prophetic. In this spirit, I challenge university presidents and community leaders to set the tone: to create and lead conversations exploring how best to forge new, productive, synergistic connections between universities and society. Together we can make academic engagement more the rule than the exception; through collaboration, intellectual entrepreneurship will become a defining characteristic of our academic brand name, designating our institutions as truly innovative and exemplary sites of learning in this century.
Richard A. Cherwitz
Richard A. Cherwitz is professor of communication studies and rhetoric and composition, and founder and director of the intellectual entrepreneurship program at the University of Texas at Austin. An earlier version of this essay appeared in the January 17, 2005 issue of The Scientist.
The chancellor of the State University of New York proposed Thursday that the state adopt a new tuition policy: Each year, tuition would go up for freshmen by the rate of the Higher Education Price Index (an inflation measure for colleges), and then be frozen for those students for four years.
The proposal, modeled on a 2003 Illinois law, is likely to be popular politically. Students and parents hate the unpredictability of tuition increases. In New York, as in many other states, tuition may remain relatively level for a few years, followed by years of double-digit increases. Pure luck can determine whether a family gets by with relatively flat rates or massive bills.
SUNY's chancellor, Robert L. King, says his plan would "protect" students and their families from such increases. But a look at the history of state tuition policies suggests that the protection may not be all it appears.
States regularly adopt tuition policies, limiting the rate of increase or even freezing tuition, and lift those policies during the same kinds of financial crises that prompt states to adopt double-digit tuition increases. If King's policy wins approval, it could easily be undone the next time the state faces a deficit and the governor doesn't want to raise taxes (a not infrequent event).
More broadly, the Illinois plan prompted some concern in that state that colleges would seek to set their rates artificially high, so they could cover unanticipated expenses during the four years that a given class would be assured the same rate. Colleges have many set expenses: Professors must be paid, libraries stocked, buildings heated and maintained, etc. In theory, King's plan would also require the state to keep up support for the university system. But if that doesn't happen, does the university system cut back or renege on its pledge to students?
And there's one other question, too: Tuition predictability is great for families with decent levels of income and savings. But does a plan like this really do anything for those for whom the only thing predictable about tuition is that they can't afford it?
It will be interesting to see how this plays out in New York. Judging from this report, the debate will be fun to watch.
Unfortunately, some of us are old enough to have passed through various incarnations of the accountability movement in higher education. Periodically university people or their critics rediscover the notion of accountability, as if the notion of being accountable to students, parents, legislators, donors, federal agencies, and other institutional constituencies were something new and unrecognized by our colleagues. We appear to have entered another cycle, signaled by the publication last month of a call to action by the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) association, with support from the Ford Foundation, called "Accountability for Better Results."
The SHEEO report has the virtue of recognizing many of the reasons why state-level accountability systems fail, and focuses its attention primarily on the issue of access and graduation rates. While this is a currently popular and important topic, the SHEEO report illustrates why the notion of "accountability" by itself has little meaning. Universities and colleges have many constituencies, consumers, funding groups, interested parties, and friends. Every group expects the university to do things in ways that satisfy their goals and objectives, and seek "accountability" from the institution to ensure that their priorities drive the university’s performance. While each of these widely differentiated accountability goals may be appropriate for each group, the sum of these goals do not approach anything like "institutional accountability."
Accountability has special meaning in public universities where it usually signifies a response to the concerns of state legislators and other public constituencies that a campus is actually producing what the state wants with the money the state provides. This is the most common form of accountability, and often leads to accountability systems or projects that attempt to put all institutions of higher education into a common framework to ensure the wise expenditure of state money on the delivery of higher education products to the people.
In this form, accountability is usually a great time sink with no particular value, although it has the virtue of keeping everyone occupied generating volumes of data of dubious value in complex ways that will exhaust the participants before having any useful impact. The SHEEO report is particularly clear on this point.
This form of accountability has almost no practical utility because state agencies cannot accurately distinguish one institution of higher education from the other for the purposes of providing differential funding. If the state accountability system does not provide differential funding for differential performance, then the exercise is more in the nature of an intense conversation about what good things the higher education system should be doing rather than a process for creating a system that could actually hold institutions accountable for their performance.
Public agencies rarely hold institutions accountable because to do so requires that they punish the poor performers or at least reward the good performers. No institution wants a designation as a poor performer. An institution with problematic performance characteristics as measured by some system will mobilize every political agent at its disposal (local legislators, powerful alumni and friends, student advocates, parents) to modify the accountability criteria to include sufficient indicators on which they can perform well.
In response to this political pressure, and to accommodate the many different kinds, types and characteristics of institutions, the accountability system usually ends up with 20, 30 or more accountability measures. No institution will do well on all of them, and every institution will do well on many of them, so in the end, all institutions will qualify as reasonably effective to very effective, and all will remain funded more or less as before.
The lifecycle of this process is quite long and provides considerable opportunity for impassioned rhetoric about how well individual institutions serve their students and communities, how effective the research programs are in enhancing economic development, how valuable the public service activities enhance the state, and so on. At the end, when most participants have exhausted their energy and rhetoric, and when the accountability system has achieved stasis, everyone will declare a victory and the accountability impulse will go dormant for several years until rediscovered again.
Often, state accountability systems offer systematic data reporting schemes with goals and targets defined in terms of improvement, but without incentives or sanctions. These systems assume that the value of measuring alone will motivate institutions to improve to avoid being marked as ineffective. This kind of system has value in identifying the goals and objectives of the state for its institutions, but often relegates the notion of accountability to the reporting of data rather than the allocation of money, where it could make a significant difference.
If an institution, state, or other entity wants to insist on improved performance from universities, they must specify the performance they seek and then adjust state appropriations to reward those who meet or exceed the established standard. Reductions in state budgets for institutions that fail to perform are rare for obvious political reasons, but the least effective system is one that allocates funds to poorly performing institutions with the expectation that the reward for poor performance will motivate improvement. One key to effective performance improvement, reinforced in the SHEEO report, is strictly limiting the number of key indicators for measuring improvement. If the number of indicators exceeds 10, the exercise is likely to find all institutions performing well on some indicator and therefore all deserving of continued support.
Often the skepticism that surrounds state accountability systems stems from a mismatch between the goals of the state (with an investment of perhaps 30 percent or less of the institutional budget) and those of the institutions. Campuses may seek nationally competitive performance in research, teaching, outreach, and other activities. States may seek improvement in access and student graduation rates as the primary determinants of accountability. Institutions may see the state’s efforts as detracting from the institution’s drive toward national reputation and success. Such mismatches in goals and objectives often weaken the effectiveness of state accountability programs.
Universities are very complex and serve many constituencies with many different expectations about the institutions’ activities. Improvement comes from focusing carefully on particular aspects of an institution’s performance, identifying reliable and preferably nationally referenced indicators, and then investing in success. While the selection of improvement goals and the development of good measures are essential, the most important element in all improvement programs is the ability to move money to reward success.
If an accountability system only measures improvement and celebrates success, it will produce a warm glow of short duration. Performance improvement is hard work and takes time, while campus budgets change every year. Effective measurement is often time consuming and sometimes difficult, and campus units will not participate effectively unless there is a reward. The reward that all higher education institutions and their constituent units understand is money. This is not necessarily money reflected in salary increases, although that is surely effective in some contexts.
Primarily what motivates university improvement, however, is the opportunity to enhance the capacity of a campus. If a campus teaches more students, and as a result earns the opportunity to recruit additional faculty members, this financial reward is of major significance and will motivate continued improvement. At the same time, the campus that seeks improvement cannot reward failure. If enrollment declines, the campus should not receive compensatory funding in hopes of future improvement. Instead, a poorly performing campus should work harder to get better so it too can earn additional support.
In public institutions, the small proportion of state funding within the total budget limits the ability of state systems to influence campus behavior by reallocating funding. In particular, in many states, most of the public money pays for salaries, and reallocating funds proves difficult. Nonetheless, most public systems and legislatures can identify some funds to allocate as a reward for improved performance. Even relatively small budget increases represent a significant reward for campus achievements.
Accountability, as the SHEEO report highlights, is a word with no meaning until we define the measures and the purpose. If we mean accountability to satisfy public expectations for multiple institutions on many variables, we can expect that the exercise will be time consuming and of little practical impact. If we mean accountability to improve the institution’s performance in specific ways, then we know we need to develop a few key measures and move at least some money to reward improvement.
John V. Lombardi
John V. Lombardi, chancellor and professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, writes Reality Check every two weeks. Scott McLemee's column, Intellectual Affairs, will return Thursday.
Over the last generation, most colleges and universities have experienced considerable grade inflation. Much lamented by traditionalists and explained away or minimized by more permissive faculty, the phenomenon presents itself both as an increase in students’ grade point averages at graduation as well as an increase in high grades and a decrease in low grades recorded for individual courses. More prevalent in humanities and social science than in science and math courses and in elite private institutions than in public institutions, discussion about grade inflation generates a great deal of heat, if not always as much light.
While the debate on the moral virtues of any particular form of grade distribution fascinates as cultural artifact, the variability of grading standards has a more practical consequence. As grades increasingly reflect an idiosyncratic and locally defined performance levels, their value for outside consumers of university products declines. Who knows what an "A" in American History means? Is the A student one of the top 10 percent in the class or one of the top 50 percent?
Fuzziness in grading reflects a general fuzziness in defining clearly what we teach our students and what we expect of them. When asked to defend our grading practices by external observers -- parents, employers, graduate schools, or professional schools -- our answers tend toward a vague if earnest exposition on the complexity of learning, the motivational differences in evaluation techniques, and the pedagogical value of learning over grading. All of this may well be true in some abstract sense, but our consumers find our explanations unpersuasive and on occasion misleading.
They turn, then, to various forms of standardized testing. When the grades of an undergraduate have an unpredictable relevance to a standard measure performance, and when high quality institutions that should set the performance standard routinely give large proportions of their students “A” grades, others must look elsewhere for some reliable reference. A 3.95 GPA should reflect the same level of preparation for students from different institutions.
Because they do not, we turn to the GMAT, LSAT, GRE, or MCAT, to take four famous examples. These tests normalize the results from the standards-free zone of American higher education. The students who aspire to law or medical school all have good grades, especially in history or organic chemistry. In some cases, a student’s college grades may prove little more than his or her ability to fulfill requirements and mean considerably less than the results of a standardized test that attempts to identify precisely what the student knows that is relevant to the next level of academic activity.
Although many of us worry that these tests may be biased against various subpopulations, emphasize the wrong kind of knowledge, and encourage students to waste time and money on test prep courses, they have one virtue our grading system does not provide: The tests offer a standardized measure of a specific and clearly defined subset of knowledge deemed useful by those who require them for admission to graduate or professional study.
Measuring State Investment
If the confusion over the value of grades and test scores were not enough, we discover that at least for public institutions, our state accountability systems focus heavily on an attempt to determine whether student performance reflects a reasonable value for taxpayer investment in colleges and universities. This accountability process engages a wide range of measures -- time to degree, graduation rate, student satisfaction, employment, graduate and professional admission, and other indicators of undergraduate performance -- but even with the serious defects in most of these systems, they respond to the same problems as do standardized tests.
Our friends and supporters have little confidence in the self-generated mechanisms we use to specify the achievement of our students. If the legislature believed that students graduating with a 3.0 GPA were all good performers measured against a rigorous national standard applied to reasonably comparable curricula, they would not worry much about accountability. They would just observe whether our students learned enough to earn a nationally normed 3.0 GPA.
Of course, we have no such mechanism to validate the performance of our students. We do not know whether our graduates leave better or worse prepared than the students from other institutions. We too, in recognition of the abdication of our own academic authority as undergraduate institutions, rely on the GRE, MCAT, LSAT, and GMAT to tell us whether the students who apply (including our own graduates) can meet the challenges of advanced study at our own universities.
Partly this follows from another peculiarity of the competitive nature of the American higher education industry. Those institutions we deem most selective enroll students with high SATs on average (recognizing that a high school record is valuable only when validated in some fashion by a standardized test). Moreover, because selective institutions admit smart students who have the ability to perform well, and because these institutions have gone to such trouble to recruit them, elite colleges often feel compelled to fulfill the prophecy of the students’ potential by ensuring that most graduate with GPA’s in the A range. After all, they may say, average does not apply to our students because they are all, by definition, above average.
When reliable standards of performance weaken in any significant and highly competitive industry, consumers seek alternative external means of validating the quality of the services provided. The reluctance of colleges and universities, especially the best among us, to define what they expect from their students in any rigorous and comparable way, brings accreditation agencies, athletic organizations, standardized test providers, and state accountability commissions into the conversation, measuring the value of the institution’s results against various nationally consistent expectations of performance.
We academics dislike these intrusions into our academic space because they coerce us to teach to the tests or the accountability systems, but the real enemy is our own unwillingness to adopt rigorous national standards of our own.
These are challenging times for members of today’s military. Not only are servicemen and women called upon for extended combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, some on the home front are being asked to lengthen their careers or return to active duty from the Reserves.
Given the sacrifices that they are being asked to make, it is disturbing that many military families can’t seem to get fair treatment on tuition at state colleges and universities.
In Virginia, a state legislative committee recently rejected a measure designed to improve the quality of life for military employees and their families who are stationed in the Commonwealth. Introduced by Del. Viola O. Baskerville, the bill included a provision to extend in-state tuition benefits at public colleges and universities to active-duty members of the armed services, their spouses and dependents. Many of these military service members and their families are either stationed in Virginia for a period that is too short to qualify for residency or they move so often that they prefer to keep their residency in either their state of birth or state where they plan to eventually return.
Those who opposed the bill generally cited fiscal concerns, but the impact in terms of a total state budget would be miniscule.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the question of whether in-state tuition is made available to military families, the current answer is a patchwork quilt of different policies from state to state when, pardon the pun, a uniform policy should be in order.
In 2002, a U.S. Army-formed working group examined the in-state tuition policies of states and found that most, but not all, provide in-state tuition rates to military families when they are stationed in state. The working group recommended an "ideal" in-state tuition policy that would provide:
in-state tuition for service members and their families in the state of legal residence;
in-state tuition for military and family in the state of assignment; and
continuity for the duration of a student’s degree program once a student has started (even if his or her parent is reassigned to a base in another state or outside the country).
A slim majority of states, 26 in all, have adopted all three components of the recommended policy. In 18 others, in-state tuition is available to both military residents and assignees, but continuity of the benefit, once started, is not always available. And in five states -- Massachusetts, Vermont, Michigan, Indiana and South Dakota -- policies are left up to individual public colleges and universities to decide, creating uncertainty and stress for military families.
That leaves only one state, Virginia, which as a matter of policy does not offer assigned military families the opportunity for in-state tuition at any public college or university. This situation deserves special scrutiny because Virginia ranks No. 2 in the nation when it comes to military dollars invested, trailing only California. Military bases are a key part of Virginia’s economy, with spending exceeding $34 billion a year and 208,000 people employed at 147 installations.
Doesn’t it seem odd that, of all the states in the top 10 for military investments, only Virginia does not follow all three of the recommended guidelines?
Six of the top 10 states in military investment -- Texas, Maryland, Georgia, Alabama, Connecticut and Washington -- have changed their policies within the past two years, in order to comply with the recommended guidelines. Two other highly ranked recipients of military investment, Florida and Arizona, were already in compliance with the recommended policies. The largest state in terms of military investment, California, follows all three guidelines, though its continuity program is weak, offering only one year of in-state tuition after reassignment out of state.
The men and women of our armed forces risk their lives in service to our country. These families should not be asked to bear a greater economic burden in educating their children than their civilian neighbors across town.
Now is the time for all states, especially Virginia, to adopt a consistent, three-pronged policy that would mandate in-state tuition for military families, as well as offer continued in-state tuition once higher education has begun. This seems the least we can do back on the home front for the millions of men and women who are serving our country in uniform.
James A. Boyle
James A. Boyle is president of College Parents of America, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to empowering parents to best support their children on the path to and through college.Â Headquartered in Arlington, Va., College Parents of America reaches more than 25,000 current and future college parents.
In my work as Oregon’s college evaluator, I am often asked why state approval is not "as good as accreditation" or "equivalent to accreditation."
We may be about to find out, to our sorrow: One version of the Higher Education Act reauthorization legislation moving through Congress quietly allows states to become federally recognized accreditors. A senior official in the U.S. Department of Education has confirmed that one part of the legislation would eliminate an existing provision that says state agencies can be recognized as federally approved accreditors only if they were recognized by the education secretary before October 1, 1991. Only one, the New York State Board of Regents, met the grandfather provision. By striking the grandfather provision, any state agency would be eligible to seek recognition.
If such a provision becomes law, we will see exactly why some states refuse to recognize degrees issued under the authority of other states: It is quite possible to be state-approved and a low-quality degree provider.Which states allow poor institutions to be approved to issue degrees?
Here are the Seven Sorry Sisters: Alabama (split authority for assessing and recognizing degrees), Hawaii (poor standards, excellent enforcement of what little there is), Idaho (poor standards, split authority), Mississippi (poor standards, political interference), Missouri (poor standards, political interference), New Mexico (grandfathered some mystery degree suppliers) and of course the now infamous Wyoming (poor standards, political indifference or active support of poor schools).
Wyoming considers degree mills and other bottom-feeders to be a source of economic development. You’d think that oil prices would relieve their need to support degree mills. Even the Japanese television network NHK sent a crew to Wyoming to warn Japanese citizens about the cluster of supposed colleges there: Does the state care so little for foreign trade it does not care that 10 percent of the households in Japan saw that program? You’d think that Vice President Dick Cheney and U.S. Senator Mike Enzi, who now chairs the committee responsible for education, would care more about the appalling reputation of their home state. Where is Alan Simpson when we need him?
In the world of college evaluation, these seven state names ring out like George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television,” and those of us responsible for safeguarding the quality of degrees in other states often apply some of those words to so-called “colleges” approved to operate in these states -- so-called “colleges” like Breyer State University in Alabama and Idaho (which “State” does this for-profit represent, anyway?).
There are some dishonorable mentions, too, such as California, where the standards are not bad but enforcement has been lax and the process awash in well-heeled lobbyists. The new director of California’s approval agency, Barbara Ward, seems much tougher than recent placeholders -- trust someone trained as a nurse to carry a big needle and be prepared to use it.
The obverse of this coin is that in some states, regulatory standards are higher than the standards of national accreditors, as Oregon discovered when we came across an accredited college with two senior officials sporting fake degrees. The national accreditors, the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools, had not noticed this until we mentioned it to them. What exactly do they review, if they completely ignore people’s qualifications?
The notion that membership in an accrediting association is voluntary is, of course, one of the polite fictions that higher education officials sometimes say out loud when they are too far from most listeners to inspire a round of laughter. In fact, losing accreditation is not far removed from a death sentence for almost any college, because without accreditation, students are not eligible for federal financial aid, and without such aid, most of them can’t go to school – at least to that school.
For this reason, if Congress ever decoupled aid eligibility from accreditation by one of the existing accreditors -- for example, by allowing state governments to become accreditors -- the “national” accreditors of schools would dry up and blow away by dawn the next day: They serve no purpose except as trade associations and milking machines for federal aid dollars.
The Libertarian View of Degrees
One view of the purpose and function of college degrees suggests that the government need not concern itself with whether a degree is issued by an accredited college or even a real college. This might be considered the classic libertarian view: that employers, clients and other people should come to their own conclusions, based on their own research, regarding whether a credential called a “degree” by the entity that issued (or printed) it is appropriate for a particular job or need. This view is universally propounded by the owners of degree mills, who become wealthy by selling degrees to people who think they can get away with using them this way.
The libertarian view is tempting, but presupposes a capacity and inclination to evaluate that most employers have always lacked and always will, while of course an average private citizen is even more removed from that ability and inclination. Who will actually do the research that the hypothetical perfect employer should do?
Consider the complexities of the U.S. accreditation system, the proliferation of fake accreditors complete with names nearly identical to real ones (there were at least two fake DETCs, imitating the real Distance Education Training Council, in 2005), phone numbers, carefully falsified lists of approved schools, Web sites showing buildings far from where the owners had ever been and other accoutrements.
To the morass of bogus accreditors in the U.S., add the world. Hundreds of jurisdictions, mostly not English-speaking, issuing a bewildering array of credentials under regimens not quite like American postsecondary education. Add a layer of corruption in some states and countries, a genial indifference in others, a nearly universal lack of enforcement capacity and you have a recipe for academic goulash that even governments are hard-pressed to render into proper compartments. In the past 10 days my office has worked with national officials in England, Sweden, The Netherlands, Canada and Australia to sort out suspicious degree validations. Very few businesses and almost no private citizens are capable of doing this without an exhausting allocation of time and resources. It does not and will not happen.
Should state governments accredit colleges?
State governments, not accreditors or the federal government, are the best potential guarantors of degree program quality at all but the major research universities, but only if they take their duty seriously, set and maintain high standards and keep politicians from yanking on the strings of approval as happens routinely in some states. Today, fewer than a dozen states have truly solid standards, most are mediocre and several, including the Seven Sorry Sisters, are quite poor.
If Congress is serious about allowing states to become accreditors, there must be a reason. I can think of at least two reasons. First, such an action would kill off many existing accreditors without having their work added to the U.S. Department of Education (which no one in their right mind, Democrat, Republican or Martian, wants to enlarge). This would count as devolutionary federalism (acceptable to both parties under the right conditions).
The second reason is the one that is never spoken aloud. There will be enormous, irresistible pressure on many state governments to accredit small religious schools that could never get accredited even by specialized religious accreditors today. The potential bounty in financial aid dollars for all of those church-basement colleges is incalculable.
Remember that another provision of the same proposed statute would prohibit even regionally accredited universities from screening out transfer course work based on the nature of the accreditor. Follow the bread crumbs and the net result will be a huge bubble of low-end courses being hosed through the academic pipeline, with the current Congressional leadership cranking the nozzle.
The possibility of such an outcome should provide impetus to the discussions that have gone on for many years regarding the need for some uniformity (presumably at a level higher than that of the Seven Sorry Sister states) in standards for state approval of colleges. We need a “model code” for state college approvals, something that leading states can agree to (with interstate recognition of degrees) and that states with poor standards can aspire to.
The universe of 50 state laws, some excellent and some abysmal, allows poor schools to venue-shop and then claim that their state approval makes them good schools when they are little better than diploma mills. We must do better.
Should states accredit colleges? Only if they can do it well. Today’s record is mixed, and Congress should not give states the power to accredit (or allow the Department of Education to give states the power) until they have proven that their own houses are in order. That day has not yet come.
Alan L. Contreras
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.
Somehow I missed the meeting where the nation decided to exit public higher education. I was, after all, chief financial officer of a public university.
This is no fantasy. This drama is under way across the nation.
The story line so far is that healthcare and public safety costs finally have squeezed out higher education. Institutions will always find ways to survive. The casualties are the poor students, with the ability but neither the money nor the savvy to navigate falling student aid and rising tuition.
The meeting we need, which no one has called, has this agenda: Why aren’t we discussing the fact that scrambled state and federal priorities are shutting down public higher education and strangling access? And preventing creation of a decent work force?
Some of the leading scholars of higher education – people like Mike McPherson, Morton Owen Schapiro, and Tom Kane, participants in the Forum for the Future of Higher Education -- have clearly shown how soaring costs of Medicaid and infrastructure are pushing higher education out of the food chain of state general funds. Those forces are colliding to shut down the public university system in this nation, preventing thousands and thousands from leading self-supporting lives. We all know this and yet no one has a plan to respond.
I learned this the hard way when I was CFO of the University of Hawaii system, an $800 million, 45,000-student, 10-campus public system for a few years, during a notorious hurricane between the president, the governor and the Board of Regents.
The funding issues were the underlying driver of the tensions there. And all 50 states had the same issues. Yet no one state was talking to the other. Or to the federal government. Not for lack of interest. The avoidance arose from fatigue, from lack of skill and, to a large degree, lack of courage.
No one seems to be focusing on this crisis or crafting a plan to deal with it. The higher education associations are busy fighting for every dollar in current reauthorization bills. Although this is a national problem, it plays itself out most intensely in individual states, And the tension involving Medicaid and state general funds and tuition becomes another zero-sum games at the state houses, where there is no more money.
My goal is to pose a few irreverent questions to shake loose better thinking. Here goes.
Point: Who among us is accountable for those who are not now in college but who ought to be? Those who have the ability but not the money or the savvy to navigate the system? No one. Why not? In education discussions, a balanced institutional budget, public or private, is the operating metric. If the institutions are operating and solvent, no one asks who is not enrolled. As a society, shouldn’t a measure include those able students who are shut out?
Point: Some say, looking to the Founding Fathers who left education out of the Constitution, that the U.S. shouldn’t have a national higher education policy. I’d say we already do.
I’ll illustrate by picking on Williams College and on Yale. My schools. I know they can take it. The implied federal subsidy per student at Williams and Yale is somewhere between $25,000 and $35,000 per year. I get that figure from conservative estimates of the tax-exempt endowment returns and of the tax-deductible donations each year. I am a CFO. Those are the numbers. This is at least twice the cost for a student at any community college.
Our national policy, then, is that the indoor golf-driving nets at Williams, built by tax-deducted dollars, are more important than Pell Grants for community college students working a night shift and going to school. No one has changed the federal tax policy here lately. In federal debate, Pell Grants are always at risk and eligibility changes often.
Point: Commercial-bank interest subsidies for student loans are also more important than Pell Grants for those community college students. That’s our current national policy.
Point: Our national policy is that we can’t find more money for student aid. Yet billions appear for Katrina overnight. This may be deficit spending and raises all sorts of questions to debate. It is our policy that Katrina is more important than creating a work force to sustain the nation.
Point: What about indirect-cost reimbursement for federal research? This varies from 36.5 percent at the University of Hawaii to 60 percent at many fancier schools. This means that the MIT Stata Center, designed by Frank Gehry at who knows what per square foot, is more important than a Pell Grant for community college student. Why not a more modest building in exchange for a few more $350 single-mother childcare Pell Grant payments? So the single mother can stay in school. I wish I were making this up.
Next point: This is about money. The debate within higher education is to justify the costs, not to examine the cost fundamentals.
The drivers, higher education leaders say, are health insurance, wireless Internet fees, premium dining plans. While funding drops, the argument goes, costs have to rise. What, though, is the fundamental cost driver of higher education? Isn’t that the unexamined assumption that a degree must be four years worth of credits? Which most students cannot complete even in five years? Why must a college degree be four academic years and 32 credits, one semester at a time? That model is from the 14th century at the University of Bologna. The pedagogical design constraint in that era was the shortage of books. Would we send an injured or sick child today to a 14th century hospital? Is that what we are doing in higher education?
Point: The past 50 years have produced what scientists and educators call the cognitive revolution. We know so much more about learning. How could we use that knowledge to show young people all that excites our best scientists and scholars in their research every day? Why do we ignore what we know about knowing?
Point. Politics. I’ve yet to meet a college president with a plan to improve national funding for higher education. Meetings in Washington are often about specific earmarks (read: pork) for one institution. Higher education leaders, I believe, underestimate what they can accomplish to the good, for everyone. I can cite no better example than from conversations that I’ve had as part of a Federal Reserve of Chicago project. Many of the Midwest’s leaders have expressed concern that there is nothing they can do. The problems are just too huge. I disagree, I’ve said. Look at their Congressional delegation: Michigan. Illinois. Wisconsin. Indiana. Iowa. Even presidential hopefuls among your senators.
Good ideas count. Help these senators and members of Congress. Give them something to propose. Other states are missing the same chance to lead.
Point: As a society, we know how to educate people. But we don’t need a Manhattan Project or all sorts of high-risk research to start. We know what to do. Why not take a swing at it?
Point -- or question. Have university CFOs, myself included, failed? Miserably so, I’d say. It’s our job to attract sufficient capital to the work. That’s not happening. Operating or long-term.
Why can’t we CFOs demonstrate the value of higher education in a way that leads to investment? Isn’t this our job? I’ve never met a finer group than those CFO colleagues. As a profession, we have let the job become budget triage, not capital formation. I don’t know why, but I can’t interest the National Association of College and University Business Officers in a talk on why we’ve failed. As a profession, we have to face down this failure. These funding issues are our problem.
Point: Do we know our customer? If there are any Gallup-type surveys on what students want in education, I haven’t seen them. I do not mean dropping standards or giving away the store. How can providers, colleges and universities, help? Why do we know more about how much caffeine students want in what form each day than we do about learning preferences? Look at what this young population has done to the music industry. No more albums. They want the music song by song.
Point: What about innovation? Strong economies need innovators. Educators must set the example. I don’t mean to replace faculty. Again, what’s the opportunity here? Look at the iPod and education. My daughter carries her language lab for Arabic with her. Look at the new short books, No-Nonsense Guides or The Oxford series A Very Short Introduction to dozens of topics, from A -- Ancient Philosophy to W – Wittgenstein, with stops at Darwin, Descartes, Design, Intelligence, Music, Shakespeare and Socrates. What about the Quick Study Bar Charts? At least the new dean of my Yale School of Management ought to be alarmed at how good that $4.95 Management guide is. Why does so much curriculum restate what’s available elsewhere? What about all the new skills we need?
These tools are not a substitute for a degree. They are not the quality of a seminar with a great teacher. These tools are excellent sources to topics once available by the semester only. What is the opportunity for liberating faculty here?
Point: Where are the students? They don’t seem even to vote. To every student who came to my office with a complaint, always justified, I asked, “Are you registered to vote?” Never. Puzzled looks at what difference that made. No one has greater direct, immediate interest in voting than a public college and university student, I would explain. A few hundred postcards to the statehouse can get the money for repairs. A few thousand would change the world. Whatever I said was wrong. Only one listened. And he did, after a year, end up with a million dollar earmark from the governor for dormitory work.
Point: And this one troubles me most of all. Are we talking about education or about politics? Do we really want everyone to have a great education? Cynics might say that as a society we’d rather pay welfare and Medicaid than for an education. This is less competition for the rest of us. Is that where we are? Even a cynic would have to admit that education is cheaper (read: lower taxes) than social services.
We are stuck. I can’t describe the U.S. higher ed situation better than my colleague Adam Kahane, in his excellent, slim and readable book Solving Tough Problems – An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2004).
Problems are tough because they are complex in three ways. They are dynamically complex, which means that cause and effect are far apart in space and time, and so are hard to grasp from firsthand experience. They are generatively complex, which means they are unfolding in unfamiliar and unpredictable ways. And they are socially complex, which means that the people, and so the problems, become polarized and stuck.
Point: Last one. So what? Why does it matter if we support national policies that shut out poor students? How can we not support the typical student at a state college and community college? We all know these students. They are 25. They have families. They work the night shift at McDonald's to contribute to the rent for their parents and grandparents. And then still, these students get to school. Every day they display motivation beyond the imagination of anyone at any of my schools. How can we hold them back?
I know well that my passion can run ahead of the data. I test myself wherever I go. I’ve found that the person serving coffee or pumping gas or bagging groceries is usually a student, regardless of their age. I mean the airport van driver who wants to go to school but hasn’t heard of a Pell Grant. Ask these people. That’s why we have to do better.
Wick Sloane is Chief Operating Officer of Generon Consulting in Massachusetts and a visiting fellow on higher education finance at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. This essay is adapted from a speech he gave at a meeting sponsored by the bank in November. The views expressed here are his own. Â
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.