To: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings
Re: University Presidents Summit on International Education
A week or so ago, at the University Presidents Summit on International Education, you honored us with an event delivered with class and style uncommon in executive branch engagements with university presidents and chancellors. As I’m sure you noticed, we enjoyed the attention, respected the intent, and appreciated your personal and effective participation, as well as your mobilization of key actors including the President and First Lady. As we all returned to our campuses to reflect on the messages, themes, and programs discussed, and you return to the critical business of government, a reality check on our conversation seems in order.
International education in all its many forms has been a major agenda item in American higher education forever, and over the most recent 30 years or so, colleges and universities have conducted a constant conversation about internationalizing the curriculum and improving the campuses’ ability to bring the world home.
This agenda, which reappeared in many of the comments by the university and college presidents in attendance, is really not a federal obligation. The task of internationalizing or globalizing our campuses belongs to the institutions. If internationalizing is a major campus concern, like teaching chemistry, the campus will find a way to do it because it will be central to the campus’s academic and student programs. If a campus requires federal money to support a major change to its curriculum or to rethink its purposes, the campus is not likely to be effective anyway. I would recommend that you thank us for such insights, and return to the main purpose of the summit: language skills.
Success in this proposed joint venture requires that both the federal government and the universities speak clearly and precisely about what you want and what we can do.
We in the universities and colleges have much experience in taking tightly focused government programs and diffusing their intent to flow money into activities more central to our interests. If you fund language and area studies, we will leverage the language effort to get more resources for area studies, literature studies and culture studies. These are good things, but they do not address the national need you articulated at the summit, learning language.
Further, we in the colleges and universities are expert at avoiding effective performance measurement. If the nation needs college educated graduates functionally literate in a number of less commonly taught languages, the only way to get this result is to fund programs that will test the graduates. If you want us to graduate students with a command of spoken and written Arabic, Urdu or Mandarin, you need to fund a program that delivers money to institutions that demonstrate the functional literacy of its graduates in these languages through standardized tests. Otherwise, we will train people for you who can read some things in some languages, have traveled and lived in the countries where some of these languages are spoken, but who may or may not have functional usable literacy.
We are good at redefining objectives. If the federal government wants to help create college graduates who have high quality skills related to living and working within other languages, it must fund specific programs in specific countries focused on the acquisition of testable specific language skills. If we go to India, and live primarily with English speaking communities, we will return with cultural awareness and many good stories to tell about our experiences, but we will not have acquired functional competency in a foreign language or culture. You must be specific about what you want, specific about how you will know when you get it, and specific about the test you will apply to validate the learning accomplished. This is difficult in cultural studies, but it is not at all hard in language acquisition.
If we struggle with clarity and effectiveness in our international objectives and programs, our counterparts in the federal government -- especially the State Department, the Defense Department, and some of the intelligence agencies -- send conflicting messages about the importance of language and area studies expertise. While we hear that in-depth knowledge of countries and languages is essential to the defense and prosperity of the nation, we also know that the State Department and the Defense establishment tend to rotate their employees from place to place, country to country, language region to language region, devaluing in the process true expertise in either language or culture.
We also know that the career track to high level assignments in both State and Defense place a premium on generalist experience and knowledge and little emphasis on high levels of expertise in any particular language or culture. We are also unsure whether language competency is of any particular advantage for positions within the Department of Education.
You could do some things to improve the incentives for students to think of language related skills as major assets for careers in State, Education or Defense. For example, you might institute a language competency premium for mid to high level employees in the executive branch, a bonus addition to salary for those capable of maintaining a high level of language competency throughout their careers (tested on a periodic basis). You might consider longer term assignments overseas or in region specific offices or agencies as premium assignments with enhancements to salary or other benefits that would demonstrate that the enthusiasm for functional language skills is highly valued, much in the same way combat duty and other difficult assignments carry a premium.
These comments speak to the task of making the skills associated with uncommonly taught languages valued in the real world that our students watch with clear-eyed intensity. They know that in the great American Midwest, for example, the daily need to know someone else’s language is minimal. We can travel for days without needing to speak anything but English. We see corporations hire language experts and culture brokers from among the nationals of countries where they trade and work, not from among the language fluent American college graduates.
Students see that only a few individuals in high government positions speak another language fluently, and almost none speak uncommonly taught languages. They see no premium for acquiring and maintaining a competency in difficulty to learn languages, and so they leave the language skills to native speakers, language and literature experts, and some area studies specialists.
To achieve your goals, you will need to help us focus on testable language skills, incentives for careers that use functional language skills, and support for overseas experiences that produce high levels of language performance.
We had a wonderful time at your summit, and the two of you are to be congratulated for what you are doing to improve education in the K-12 arena, facilitate the visa process, and address the constant challenge of encouraging the exchange of scholars without compromising national security. We are grateful for the respect reflected in the quality of our treatment during the Summit, and we are all eager to work with you.
Accountability, not access, has been the central concern of this Congress in its fitful efforts to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. The House of Representatives has especially shown itself deaf to constructive arguments for improving access to higher education for the next generation of young Americans, and dizzy about what sensible accountability measures should look like. The version of the legislation approved last week by House members has merit only because it lacks some of the strange and ugly accountability provisions proposed during the past three years, though a few vestiges of these bad ideas remain.
Why should colleges and universities be subject to any scheme of accountability? Because the Higher Education Act authorizes billions of dollars in grants and loans for lower-income students as it aims to make college accessible for all. This aid goes directly to students selecting from among a very broad array of institutions: private, public and proprietary; small and large; residential, commuter and on-line. Not unreasonably, the federal government wants to ensure that the resources being provided are used only at credible institutions. Hence, its insistence on accountability.
The financial limits on student aid were largely set in February when Congress hacked $12 billion from loan funds available to many of those same low-income students. With that action, the federal government shifted even more of the burden of access onto families and institutions of higher education, despite knowing that the next generation of college aspirants will be both significantly more numerous and significantly less affluent.
Now the Congress is at work on the legislation’s accountability provisions, and regardless of allocating far fewer dollars members of both chambers are considering still more intrusive forms of accountability. They appear to have been guided by no defensible conception of what is appropriate accountability.
Colleges and universities serve an especially important role for the nation -- a public purpose -- and they do so whether they are public or private or proprietary in status. The nation has a keen interest in their success. And in an era of heightened economic competition from the European Union, China, India and elsewhere, never has that interest been stronger.
In parallel with other kinds of institutions that serve the public interest, colleges and universities should make themselves publicly accountable for their performance in four dimensions: Are they honest, safe, fair, and effective? These are legitimate questions we ask about a wide variety of businesses: food and drug companies, banks, insurance and investment firms, nursing homes and hospitals, and many more.
Are they honest? Is it possible to read the financial accounts of colleges and universities to see that they conduct their business affairs honestly and transparently? Do they use the funds they receive from the federal government for the intended purposes?
Are they safe? Colleges and universities can be intense environments. Especially with regard to residential colleges and universities, do students face unacceptable risks due to fire, crime, sexual harassment or other preventable hazards?
Are they fair? Do colleges and universities make their programs genuinely available to all, without discrimination on grounds irrelevant to their missions? Given this nation’s checkered history with regard to race, sex, and disability, this is a kind of scrutiny that should be faced by any public-serving institution.
Existing federal laws quite appropriately govern measures dealing with all of these issues already. For the most part, accountability in each area can best be accomplished by asking colleges and universities to disclose information about their performance in a common and, hopefully, simple manner. No doubt measures for dealing with this required disclosure could be improved. But these three questions have not been the focus of debate during this reauthorization.
On the other hand, Congress has devoted considerable attention to a question that, while completely legitimate, has been poorly understood:
Are they effective? Do students who enroll really learn what colleges and universities claim to teach? This question should certainly be front and center in the debate over accountability.
Institutions of higher education deserve sharp criticism for past failure to design and carry out measures of effectiveness. Broadly speaking, the accreditation process has been our approach to asking and answering this question. For too long, accreditation focused on whether a college or university had adequate resources to accomplish its mission. This was later supplanted by a focus on whether an institution had appropriate processes. But over the past decade, accreditation has finally come to focus on what it should -- assessment of learning.
An appropriate approach to the question of effectiveness must be multiple, independent and professionally grounded. We need multiple measures of whether students are learning because of the wide variety of kinds of missions in American higher education; institutions do not all have identical purposes. Whichever standards a college or university chooses to demonstrate effectiveness, they should not be a creation of the institution itself -- nor of government officials -- but rather the independent development of professional educators joined in widely recognized and accepted associations.
Earlham College has used the National Survey of Student Engagement since its inception. We have made significant use of its findings both for re-accreditation and for improvement of what we do. We are also now using the Collegiate Learning Assessment. I believe these are the best new measures of effectiveness, but we need many more such instruments so that colleges and universities and choose the ones most appropriate to assessing fulfillment of learning in the scope of their particular missions.
Until the 11th hour, the House version of the Higher Education Act contained a provision that would have allowed states to become accreditors, a role they are ill equipped to play. Happily, that provision now has been eliminated. Meanwhile, however, the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, appointed by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, is flirting with the idea of proposing a mandatory one-size-fits-all national test.
Much of the drama of the accountability debate has focused on a fifth and inappropriate issue: affordability. Again until the 11th hour, the House version of the bill contained price control provisions. While these largely have been removed, the bill still requires some institutions that increase their price more rapidly than inflation to appoint a special committee that must include outsiders to review their finances. This is an inappropriate intrusion on autonomy, especially for private institutions.
Why is affordability an inappropriate aspect of accountability? Because in the United States we look to the market to “get the prices right,” not heavy-handed regulation or accountability provisions. Any student looking to attend a college or university has thousands of choices available to him or her at a range of tuition rates. Most have dozens of choices within close commuting distance. There is plenty of competition among higher education institutions.
Let’s keep the accountability debate focused on these four key issues: honesty, safety, fairness, and effectiveness. With regard to the last and most important of these, let’s put our best efforts into developing multiple, independent, professionally grounded measures. And let’s get back to the other key issue, which is: How do we provide access to higher education for the next generation of Americans?
Douglas C. Bennett is president and professor of politics at Earlham College, in Indiana.
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.”
In the wake of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the 2002 federal law aimed at reforming the governance of public companies, corporate trustees have been on the hot seat to ensure greater transparency and accountability. While Sarbanes-Oxley does not apply to nonprofits yet, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee has been hard at work analyzing whether nonprofits merit more scrutiny and similar rules. The recent string of events at American University -- involving a president who needed a strong board to protect him from himself – has, for better or for worse, drawn attention to the challenges of higher education trusteeship. And Congress’s continuing interest underscores the pressing need for college and university boards to get their house in order – before someone does it for them.
But the existing culture of university trusteeship is one that promotes the status quo and discourages active and informed trustees. By custom and practice, trustees are not trained or encouraged to ask questions and do their job responsibly. Based on more than a decade of service as an elected regent of the University of Nebraska, and my involvement with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and the Institute for Effective Governance, I have found a number of reasons this is the case, and identified some antidotes to these unhealthy practices.
For starters, when I was elected regent I was amazed at the number of parties, dinners and social functions that board members attend. The benefit of these events from the university administrator’s perspective is very clear: a trustee who becomes friends with administrators is going to be more likely to cheerlead than to challenge policies and practices. As I delved into my work with my fellow regents, I was amazed at how willing regents were to let administrators make all the decisions. I soon realized that the “social side” of trustee life was only part of the problem.
The University of Nebraska has very good, decent people in its administration and on its Board of Regents. Yet the standard practice of public university administration, like so many other parts of our system of government, promotes agency interests first, often with results that fail to enhance the public interest. For example, the board voted 6 to 2 to spend over $3 million to build a storage facility for seldom-used books. These are not rare books, but standard texts available in libraries across the country. Now they will be stored in better conditions than the books in the University’s regular collection.
The board approved $3 million for a “hydraulically banked indoor running track system” so that the University of Nebraska at Lincoln’s sports center could boast a state-of-the-art, world-class indoor track. This at a time when the university was increasing tuition and student fees and lobbying the legislature for more money claiming we do not have enough to pay faculty.
The list goes on. Trustees who realize that their responsibility is to make decisions that serve the public (not always the university) would never approve these proposals. But the prevailing culture on university boards is one of routinely succumbing to administration demands. A significant part of the reason boards behave this way is that most university administrators contract with the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities to train new board members. AGB training follows a single model, which emphasizes following the administrators’ lead and not “micromanaging” -- in other words, not asking tough questions.
But if our universities are to be well managed, we need trustees who promote responsible policies and serve in a responsible manner -- which means asking tough, challenging questions, advancing public understanding of the trade-offs and costs of public programs, promoting responsible behaviors and often voting No for programs that do not meet cost-benefit standards.
Having criticized my fellow board members for voting irresponsibly, let me offer a brief case study in which the University of Nebraska Board of Regents took a very courageous and responsible stand in the face of extreme pressures. In 2000, the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) came under attack for conducting fetal tissue research using tissue from aborted babies. UNMC is prohibited from performing abortions, but it accepted tissue donations from a doctor who had been awarded “honorary faculty” status.
UNMC had not been doing fetal tissue research in secret; faculty had published more than 50 papers based on the research. But UNMC did deliberately keep the source of the tissue quiet -- and this proved to be a big mistake. When the news media picked up the issue, it was described as “secret research using tissue from aborted babies.”
Nebraska pro-life groups condemned the research as immoral. Several vowed to defeat any regent running for re-election who supported this research. Political watchers predicted that the Board of Regents would quickly cave. The board thoroughly studied and debated the topic, and made the responsible decision. We weighed the overall public costs and benefits, thought through the moral questions, and, against significant threats and pressures, voted 12 to 0 to approve continuing fetal tissue research at UNMC. Recognizing the sensitivities of certain citizens on the issue, the board also directed the Medical Center to try to develop an alternative supply of tissue. UNMC did eventually develop some alternative sources for some of the cells needed, but to this day, it continues to use fetal tissue from abortions for some of the cell types since no other source can be found.
We need elected officials and university trustees who will make the tough and sometimes unpleasant decisions that result in responsible policy. Making tough calls, saying No, voting against programs that are recommended by administrators or government officials who are your personal friends, is very hard for an elected or appointed governing board member to do. But it is the responsible course. The public interest is clearly served by weighing all the costs and benefits to the public, debating alternatives openly and honestly, and then choosing the best option. The administration will be advocating what is best for the university from its perspective -- at a public university, it is the trustee’s job to champion the public’s perspective.
What are we to do to enhance the performance and responsible decision making by college and university governing boards in an environment that is dominated by administrators controlling the information and a board culture that promotes cheerleading rather than responsible governance? Here are 10 proposals:
1. Board members must subject major spending and policy decisions to cost/benefit analysis. It is a simple and extremely useful analysis because it forces trustees to consider disadvantages and trade-offs. While simple to do, the fact is, cost-benefit discussions are rare at governing board meetings. Unfortunately, since administrators have the resources to do analysis and do not like trustees to “micromanage,” the normal practice for board members is no cost/benefit analysis, listen and nod as administrators speak, vote yes, and let the full-time officials explain the policies and decisions.
2. The board secretary should be hired and rewarded by and responsible only to the board. If the board wants to have serious staff work done and someone who can collect information and be responsive to the board, a staff person responsible only to the board is best. Board employees who work for the administration will understandably end up being less than supportive if there is a request for information the administration doesn’t like, or a serious disagreement in policy. Beware: A request to hire a board secretary is often viewed (incorrectly) as an insult and great threat to the president, and most likely will be opposed.
3. Responsible trustees should insist on real committees and meaningful committee meetings, sessions that truly tackle issues. Administrators often favor minimal board meetings and a maximum of socializing. Similarly, administrators do not like the board breaking down into committees where they can do even more analysis and work. Trustees must take charge of their board, organize into committees to get into budget and policies in far more detail than is possible in the full board meetings, and limit the amount of time lost to unimportant university “show” presentations and social events.
4. Boards should insist on having major “strategic issue” discussions at each meeting. Another way to avoid the tendency to respond to administrator-set agendas and engage in end-of-the-process yes/no votes is to set aside a big block of time at each meeting to discuss key strategic issues in order to set policy to direct the university. Dedicating the bulk of a full board meeting to tuition policy, recruiting, and other major economic issues has been very effective at the University of Nebraska.
5. Board members should insist on the right to “have the floor” so that they can delve into issues and get all their follow-up questions addressed. The standard practice at board meetings is to have trustees wait in a queue to ask a question, with no opportunity for follow-up discussion and real debate. This needs to end.
6. To promote better accountability, trustees should insist on and help develop good “outcome measures” and “key performance indicators” for the university. It would be great for students and taxpayers if public universities required all graduates to complete the GRE or some other relevant professional exam as a condition for graduation. We need this kind of national standard and outcome measure to enable us to judge how well we do in educating our students and compare the value added by our school relative to other schools. This data would allow evaluation of programs and professors -- great information for students and those working to improve the university.
7. After new programs are approved, accompanied by promises of great results, boards should at some later date compare the program’s actual results and outcomes against the initial promises and projections. I visited Missouri's top board and found that its members followed this practice. For example, they approved a Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics and, in a board review several years later, presented facts showing that annual student enrollments had fallend far short of those projected. The natural tendency is to hide bad results like this. But a board needs to ensure that problems are disclosed and dealt with, and reviews like this can help.
8. Every few years, the board and administration should convene a committee to review administrative costs and champion efforts to undertake cost cutting. Reducing administrative costs is a “continuous improvement” effort that will often involve personnel reductions and changes to longstanding practice. An active, responsible board can help provide the impetus to make these needed changes. In Colorado, one board working closely with the president was able to reduce the administrative layers and re-direct the savings to instruction. This is a story that should inspire us all.
9. Trustees must demand an issues/requests tracking system, so when information is requested or an action is agreed to by the board, the request actually gets done. This is often not the case -- especially if the board secretary is responsible to the administration, not the board.
10. Finally, I recommend that university boards join the Institute for Effective Governance. I have attended sessions conducted by the Association of Governing Boards (the only other organization for trustees besides ACTA, which founded the institute) and read their materials, and the overwhelming message of AGB is for trustees to cheerlead for the campus administration. It has been my experience that AGB too often adopts the proposition that any disagreement with the administration is micromanaging or intolerable failure to support the president. If there were any doubt, recent problems at American University, where the board essentially gave a blank check to the president, should surely settle the matter: American University has been a member of the AGB for decades. The best way to adopt better practices is to visit other university boards, attend their meetings and talk with them about differences in practice. The Institute for Effective Governance (a group of trustees, not administrators) is a great source of best board practices and the most helpful resource I know for boards of trustees.
While I have great admiration for Nebraska’s current and past presidents, and have supported them on the vast majority of issues, I would never trust anyone with the freedom and blank check that trustees almost universally give to their top administrator. Nationwide, university boards simply do not scrutinize the budget the way city councils, county boards and legislatures do. We have great people on university governing boards, but the system is stacked against change and efforts to cut back spending or say no to new policies that continually lift the burden of responsibility from individuals.
To be a responsible board member, one must ask hard questions, do research, and frequently question and oppose college administrators who, understandably, often focus on the narrower interests of the college or university rather than the broader public interest.
In serving as a trustee, if you are not periodically voting “no” at meetings, or preventing some good-for-the-school-but-bad-for-the-public proposals from making it to the board for a vote, then you are not doing the job properly. If you have become such good friends with the school administrators that you find it too uncomfortable to oppose them on a vote, then you are not serving the public interest. If you are spending more time attending the athletic events, parties, and dinners with administrators rather than researching and questioning, then you are not serving as a responsible trustee.
Drew Miller is a member of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, member of two public company boards of directors, and adviser to the Institute for Effective Governance. He is the president of Heartland Management Consulting Group and a colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.
In 2004, the U.S. Department of Education proposed to modernize its system of gathering information from the nation's colleges. Among other provisions, it would have required colleges to begin submitting privacy-protected data about individual students' academic progress. The goal was straightforward: replace a cumbersome series of surveys about discrete topics (enrollment, graduation rates, finance, etc.) with a single survey that would ultimately yield far more accurate information about institutions.
This "unit record" system would have provided much more accurate information about individual colleges. The current federal graduation rate measure, for example, doesn't give colleges credit for students who transfer and graduate elsewhere -- a problem in an era of increasing mobility. By matching student records from multiple institutions, the system would give colleges full credit for students who start or finish their careers elsewhere. Colleges with a transfer mission, like community colleges, would benefit most. The system would also show "net price" -- student costs after institutional financial aid packages are taken into account, which often runs thousands of dollars less than the sticker prices commonly reported by the press. In other words, the unit record system would make most colleges look more successful and less expensive than current data suggest. And these are only a few of the informational benefits the system would bring.
Yet the reaction to the proposal from parts of the higher education community was nothing short of apoplexy. While the public university and community college associations were generally supportive, lobbyists from organizations like the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities began throwing around words like "Orwellian" with abandon. Public opinion surveys filled with leading questions were commissioned, op-eds were placed in The Washington Post, and meetings were convened with members of Congress. The very idea of thousands of colleges and universities sending electronic files bulging with Social Security numbers, diploma information, and other potentially sensitive data about millions of students to a single repository in Washington -- one presumably full of huge, ominously buzzing computer servers where the data would be analyzed without students' consent -- was said to be dangerous and downright un-American. It would also be a terrible financial burden, institutions said, another unfunded mandate sucking funds away from students and education.
So awful was this idea that higher education lobbyists had language inserted in proposed versions of the federal Higher Education Act to ban the system outright, language that is now being considered in final negotiations over the bill. When the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education released a draft report endorsing the system in late June 2006, the president of NAICU, David Warren, called it "an assault on Americans' privacy and security in the shadow of the fourth of July."
All of which is strange, given that just such a centralized, DC-based system -- complete with the big computers, social security numbers, and all the rest -- already exists. The same institutions that are busy denouncing the hypothetical federal system happily send individual student data to this very real system, several times a year. It's called the National Student Clearinghouse, and it's located one of those indistinguishable suburban office buildings off the highway in Herndon, Va., about 25 miles from the halls of Congress, where it's run by a non-profit organization founded by the student loan industry. I've been there, twice.
The fact that some higher education leaders are waging war against the federal system while simultaneously supporting the lender-enabled system does much to separate rhetoric from reality when it comes to questions of information systems, student privacy and higher education. It turns out to be perfectly possible to gather and organize massive amounts of potentially sensitive information about college students in a safe, responsible way. And most colleges are more than willing to participate -- as long as it's in their financial best interest to do so.
The Clearinghouse was founded in 1993, and was originally named the National Student Loan Clearinghouse, because that's exactly what it was, and is: a solution to a student loan information problem. America is a big country; there are thousands of colleges and universities, along with thousands of financial institutions that provide student loans. Most students don't start paying off their loans until after they leave college. That means that lenders have a vested interest in knowing exactly when students leave, so they can start sending them polite (and eventually less polite) letters asking them to repay. Lenders can't really rely on students for this information. ("Yeah bro, still in school. Majoring in, um, art history now. It's my, you know, personal calling.") They have to get it from the colleges themselves. Historically, that meant that each lender had to maintain some kind of ongoing information reporting relationship with hundreds or thousands of colleges, while each college had to do the same with hundreds or thousands of lenders. It was a hassle, and the Clearinghouse provided a better way.
The Clearinghouse is basically a gigantic nexus and storage facility for information about college enrollment. Every month or two, participating colleges send an electronic file to Herndon with a list of all the students currently enrolled. Lenders send a list of all the students to whom they've lent money. The Clearinghouse puts the lists together, and sends a third list back to each lender, detailing which of their borrowers are still enrolled and which are not. Instead of colleges dealing with thousands of lenders and lenders dealing with thousands of colleges, everyone just deals with one organization, the Clearinghouse.
Actually doing this is harder than it sounds. The student loan industry invested millions of dollars in getting the organization off the ground, and it currently employs nearly 100 full-time people to manage the process, which involves a lot of matching algorithms, data protocols, and the afore-mentioned large computers. But the important thing to understand is that it works. As of today, over 91 percent of all the college students in America are enrolled at one of the 3,100 colleges and universities that send individual information about them to the Clearinghouse, whether or not they took out a student loan. The Clearinghouse employs elaborate security procedures that have never been breached, and is fully compliant with the Family and Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
While the Clearinghouse was originally created to fulfill a specific purpose, it has gradually branched out into other areas, including providing degree verification for employers and information for researchers and K–12 school systems. It was Clearinghouse data that allowed Chicago Public Schools to learn that less than half of its graduates who went on to college were earning a bachelor's degree within six years, and at some local institutions success rates were lower than 20 percent. The Clearinghouse also provides reports and analyses to colleges, letting them find out, for example, where all the students they accepted but didn't enroll chose to enroll instead.
It's all perfectly logical and above-board. Which is the point -- colleges and universities have no principled objection to centralized databases of student information. They're happily sending unit-record data to one right now. There are, for example, 43 private colleges and universities represented on NAICU's board of directors. Of them, 38 were enrolled in the Clearinghouse system as of April 21, 2008.
The controversy around the proposed federal unit record database is a power struggle masquerading as a fight for student privacy. Colleges don't mind sharing information with lenders because they have a mutually beneficial relationship, each providing a market for each other's services. By contrast, colleges are deeply suspicious of any new entanglements with the federal government. Throughout the nation's history, Uncle Sam has adopted a hands-off approach to higher education, providing no direct operating support and asking for little or no say in the conduct of universities in return. That appears to be changing, as federal lawmakers are increasingly asking tough questions about price and quality, suggesting that the former is too high and the latter is too low.
There is an important discussion to be had about the federalism and the proper relationship between the academy and the state. The U.S. Department of Education doesn't have an unlimited claim on student information, and the benefits of any system should be weighed against the costs of compliance for institutions. More broadly, the need for public accountability must be balanced with the American higher education's traditional strengths of diversity and autonomy. And the need for stringent privacy protections for students goes without saying. Of course, the National Center for Education Statistics, where higher education data is held, already collects large amounts of student-level data through its extensive series of longitudinal surveys. And like the Clearinghouse, its security record is unblemished.
But the private college lobby doesn't want to have a serious conversation about these issues. Instead, they've built an argument on hypocrisy and misrepresentation, arguing on Capitol Hill against student information systems even as they help build one just a short drive away.
Submitted by Kevin Carey on September 23, 2008 - 4:00am
In 1992, college diploma fresh in hand, I decided to take a year off before going to graduate school. (By "decided" I mean "forgot to take the GRE.") A friend suggested that, in terms of good places to squander 12 months of one's youth, it was hard to beat Chapel Hill, N.C. So we found a cheap apartment near the UNC campus and got jobs waiting tables at a barbecue restaurant. (Want to out yourself as a damn Yankee? Use the word "barbecue" as a verb.) Slinging pulled pork sandwiches paid just enough to cover rent, gas, drinks, and music. For the latter, I spent a great deal of time in Schoolkids Records, one of those iconic stores where every aisle held the promise of a long-sought European bootleg and the girl behind the counter was unattainably cool.
Earlier this year, upon returning to Chapel Hill for the first time, I walked up Franklin Street looking for some new music and perhaps a few fond memories -- only to discover that Schoolkids was closed, shut down just a few months prior, after 30 years in business. Apparently, in 2008 you can't make money selling compact discs on the main drag of a music-soaked college town, one block from a campus of 30,000 students.
For me, it was a reminder that times change. Unfortunately, the entertainment industry seems to have drawn a different conclusion, namely that that it has no choice but to wage a futile war against colleges and students that could threaten the essential purpose of higher education.
By now we're all familiar with the Recording Industry Association of America's dogged campaign of responding to a sea change in the way music is distributed and sold by suing 12-year olds and senior citizens for hundreds of thousands of dollars because they made $50 worth of songs available on a filing-sharing network. Truly there is no industry that hates its customers more.
The "haul grandma into court" strategy proved to be somewhat of a PR debacle. So the RIAA took aim at a less sympathetic target: college students, who are often assumed to be spoiled, amoral, and in need of some kind of comeuppance or another. There was, however, a complication: music companies can locate the Internet Protocol (IP) address of copyright infringers on their own. But they have to ask the Internet Service Provider (ISP) for the name of the actual person who "lives" at that address. And at most universities, the ISP is the university itself.
So the music industry began deputizing colleges in the hunt for music thieves, asking them to pass along "settlement letters" which offer students the chance to pay a few thousand dollars in order to forestall a ruinous lawsuit. (Since most undergrads don't have that kind of money lying around, the industry even created a convenient Web site where students can charge the fine to one of those credit cards bearing usurious interest rates that you get after filling out an application in exchange for a free T-shirt.)
Some colleges refused to participate. Many others, wanting to cut down on illegal activity and wary of losing their legal immunity under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, agreed. That's increasingly looking like a bad decision. The suits have done nothing to stem the tide of illegal file-sharing. Now the industry is pursuing a much more intrusive and dangerous strategy: trying to require universities to create an electronic infrastructure for snooping, privacy violation, and censorship that runs wholly counter to what an institution of higher learning should be. And in doing so, they're using colleges' past good-faith cooperation against them.
The technical term is "deep packet inspection," a process by which universities can examine the contents of electronic files that pass back and forth on their networks to see if they contain copyrighted material like the latest M.I.A. single or an episode of Gossip Girl. It's the equivalent of requiring institutions to steam open and read every letter that passes through the campus mail. It's also expensive, slows down the entire network, and won't actually work, because the small number of students who are responsible for the most egregious piracy also tend to be the students with the technical know-how needed to stay three steps ahead of whatever new filtering mechanisms the university might devise.
The entertainment industry insists that it doesn't necessarily want to go this way, but that's obviously a lie. Earlier this year, it supported legislation in Illinois and Tennessee that would have required colleges to implement "technology-based deterrents" to piracy if they received more than a certain number of infringement notices. Around the same time, colleges across the country began seeing a 20-fold increase in the number of infringement notices they received.. When colleges protested the new burden, the RIAA said their past voluntary cooperation meant they were legally obligated to comply in the future.
Then a blanket requirement to develop "technology-based deterrents" was included in the new version of the federal Higher Education Act enacted in August. It's a safe bet that when the meaning of that phrase is inevitably litigated, industry lawyers will argue that only deep packet inspection will suffice. Perhaps they'll cite as evidence the technology's widespread use by censors in the Chinese government.
Why, one might ask, are colleges being forced to bear the brunt of the entertainment industry's campaign, when (flawed industry studies notwithstanding) most piracy occurs far outside of campus walls? Simple: In the world of ISPs, colleges are small potatoes. They also receive direct state and federal funding, making them vulnerable to legislative pressure. The big content providers don't actually care that much if undergraduates steal music -- they know as well as anyone that students form tastes and preferences in college that generate lots of money down the road. This is simply a way to establish precedent, an opening skirmish in a larger, longer war with their real enemy: big ISPs like Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T. Universities are Lilliputs compared to these corporate giants, which have money, lawyers, and political clout that matches the content providers and more. The entertainment industry is trying to soften up the legal ground so it can eventually require all ISPs to automatically spy on their customers. If privacy and academic freedom suffer along the way, well, you know what they say about collateral damage.
To be clear, I'm no apologist for stealing music. There are 10,000 songs on my iPod and I paid for every one of them. Information may want to be free, but that doesn't mean we have to do what it wants or expect musicians to make a living as itinerant troubadours who sell memorabilia on the side. I get paid to write occasionally and I'd be pretty cheesed if someone published my words without permission or compensation. But if that happened, it would be my problem -- not the problem of whichever ISP happened to carry the digital words to and fro.
For half a millennium, universities have stood as places where knowledge is created, stored, and exchanged. The storage function is eroding as digital information can be housed anywhere and accessed everywhere. But the role of universities as centers of knowledge exchange has become all the more vital. Higher education allows communities of scholars and students to engage with one another in deep, sustained ways. At their best, universities also welcome political and cultural views that are far outside of the mainstream. It's not an easy role to play, requiring strong institutions that are committed to values of inquiry and openness. As the speed and volume of communication are constantly amplified by new technologies, colleges and universities will be irreplaceable as places that nurture and sustain these kinds of substantive dialogues, free from the threat of censorship and intrusion.
It's easy to be nostalgic for days gone by. But I'm not getting my early 20s back and the music industry will never return to the glory days when people bought millions of copies of a single physical CD full of songs, some of which they wanted to buy and some of which they didn't, because that was the only choice they had. We're witnessing a desperate industry shackled to a 20th century business model try to undermine one of the foundational purposes of higher education by forcing colleges to create an infrastructure for electronic spying that potentially would be available for any corporate interest with enough money to hire a lobbyist. It's unacceptable, and an issue on which all colleges and universities should take a stand.
During a seemingly endless presidential campaign, President-elect Obama offered a compelling higher education platform. Now, however, on the eve of the new Obama administration, it is clear that politics and finances will require the new president to scale back his plans for higher education and just about everything else.
What the moment demands, is that colleges and universities join together across their traditional divisions -- public and private, two-year and four-year, high-endowment and low-endowment, sectarian and non-sectarian and all sorts of demographic variations -- to suggest and advance the priorities with the potential to help shape the president-elect’s agenda.
The Obama higher education platform focused on five critical issues: access, affordability, research, economic development, and international competitiveness. His agenda included -- among other initiatives -- grants for technology-based economic development through community colleges; doubled funds for basic research, especially energy-related research; support for expanding historically black colleges and for enhancing distance learning; the establishment of tax credits to make college more affordable; and expansion of access through TRIO and Gear-Up, as well as community colleges. He asked for funding to produce teachers, promote service, and retrain the unemployed.
A number of pressures will now require the new president to rethink this array of important proposals because he won’t have the resources to carry out this agenda. First, discretionary dollars will be eaten up by the $800 billion bailout, additional federal funding for economic relief, the continuing cost of the Iraq war, and declines in tax revenues.
Second, support for education has diminished as a priority for the American people. During the 2000 presidential election, Americans ranked education either first or second among the nation’s priorities. In 2004, it fell to fifth. In 2008, it dropped off the priority list.
Third, the primary citizen advocates for increased education funding have shifted their focus to health care. Baby Boomers, who constituted more than half of the electorate until this election, single-handedly made education a priority because they wanted good schools for their children. Today, with most of their kids graduated or largely through school, Boomers are now focused on aging and frail parents, who are absorbing an increasing share of their time and resources.
The sheer size of the Baby Boom generation ensures that every politician running for any office, from dogcatcher to president of the United States, quickly develops a platform that emphasizes Boomers’ interests. As a result, elder care, health insurance and Social Security have become the new priority -- and will likely continue to overshadow education in the years ahead., since the first Boomers reached retirement age this year.
So, given these constraints, what Obama initiatives could make the greatest difference for higher education and for a nation that depends on its colleges and universities? To maintain the vitality of the nation’s colleges and universities, what one or two greatest priorities can our institutions agree upon and work most effectively for?
College affordability. Among all the Obama higher education goals, affordability is likely to have the highest priority and the greatest likelihood of Congressional support. This is primarily a middle-class issue, and middle-class and more affluent populations have the highest voting rates. Moreover, the cost of college is rising more quickly than their resources: Today, fewer than 4 percent of Americans can afford to pay the sticker price for four years of college. Affordability, therefore, already has a Washington constituency. Because this issue will persist, colleges and universities should make it a centerpiece of their program for Washington action.
College access. While access remains critically important in public discourse, funding is unlikely to match the expressed concern. The populations most underrepresented in higher education historically have the lowest voting rates, though there appears to have been an increase in the 2008 election. As an issue, however, access increasingly has not only a moral and rhetorical basis, but also an economic power. In a knowledge-based economy, a college education is the prerequisite to gainful employment. Traditionally underrepresented populations constitute the nation’s fastest-growing pool of intellectual resource and human capital, and that should make it possible to seek support for access initiatives -- particularly with colleges and universities leading the way. Low-cost initiatives, such as simplifying federal financial aid, are likeliest to be adopted.
Research. The greatest funding increases for higher education may occur for applied research and development areas rather than basic research. For instance, research budgets are likely to expand owing to federal energy initiatives. This means that while the future depends upon adequate funding for basic research, universities might be more successful in working to obtain resources in high priority areas like energy.and green initiatives.
In this environment, colleges and universities will face new constraints -- rising demands by the federal government for accountability, cost controls and pressure on state governments to assume greater responsibility for higher education support.
Financial accountability. Concerns about college affordability will lead Washington to pressure colleges and universities not only to control tuition and expand financial aid, but also to demonstrate accountability. It is wiser for institutions to take the lead in this area or they are likely to face growing efforts in Washington to regulate higher education. For instance, given the bad odor that deregulation has acquired in the for-profit sector, some watchdogs may press to extend controls to not-for-profits. Arguments have already been made that colleges, as well as other not-for-profits, should adopt governance approaches that reflect a Sarbanes-Oxley regimen of audit controls. In the years ahead, there could also be efforts to impose health care-like price controls on higher education through federal financial aid programs. As a first step, institutions of higher education need to become more transparent on policy, practices and compelling rationales on issues such as tuition pricing, need-based and merit based financial aid, endowment use, and graduation rates and standards for which they are being criticized and are vulnerable. Without foot dragging, reports should be issued annually on these subjects. Topics such as tenure, teaching loads and the place of undergraduate education in the university need to be better explained and understood by higher education’s publics.
Cost controls. Colleges and universities will have to reject the practice of cost-plus pricing, determining expenditures first and then charging the tuition necessary to cover them, analogous to a family setting their desired annual expenses and then determining how much they need to earn, in order to control costs at the very moment when demand for financial aid is rising and fundraising is becoming more difficult. Historically, America’s colleges and universities have grown by adding new programs to existing programs rather than substituting. Presidents have often talked about their desire to reverse this approach. The years ahead will not only provide an opportunity to prune and substitute, but will make it essential.
A shift toward state funding. Higher education can expect reduced federal funding, both in real dollars and in programs deemed nonessential to the public. States, already facing significant deficits, will be asked by the federal government to take greater responsibility for higher education funding.
These are some tall orders and tough conditions, and pressures to accommodate them are inevitable. Colleges and universities will need to document and make explicit what is and is not possible. With fewer resources, higher education cannot be expected to take on major new initiatives imposed by Washington. The degree to which institutions of higher education can be expected to respond to diminished federal support will vary dramatically across different types of institutions. All institutions cannot be expected to share the burden equally.
Finally, even if money is not available in Washington, the higher education community more than ever must remind the media and the public of the importance of higher education to our children’s futures, economic development, global competition, maintenance of a democratic society, and national defense. Colleges and universities have a crucial social, intellectual, and economic role to play.
In this new administration, colleges and universities will be unable to sit back and hope for the best, when the bailout dust settles. Instead, our institutions must together seize the moment to determine which priorities and what kinds of support are most essential. The name of the game in the years ahead may simply be preserving what higher education has. That, in itself, will be no small challenge.
Arthur Levine is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, New Jersey, and president emeritus of Teachers College, Columbia University.
In forming a strategy to deal with the severe economic downturn, President-elect Obama and his evolving brain trust of economic advisers should recall the largely successful and innovative efforts by federal and state governments to avoid a projected steep post-World War II recession -- in particular, the key role given to higher education.
Beginning in earnest in 1944, many leaders in Washington and in the state capitals throughout the nation worried about a return to Depression-era unemployment rates -- President Roosevelt included.
There are many reasons that the expected deep recession eventually turned into the beginning of an economic boom in the US after the war, including high saving rates during the war with the result of unanticipated and pent-up consumer demand. But another reason was proactive efforts to mitigate feared unemployment rates, to support industries with growth potential, and to fund yet another round of infrastructure development and expand public services.
One of the most important salves that came out of that era of policy making, one that provides a guide for our present predicament, was the embrace of large-scale investments and innovative policies by both federal and state governments to promote greater access to higher education.
The famed GI Bill, for example, was not simply an effort to open new opportunities for deserving returning veterans -- many of whom had delayed their education or needed new skills to enter the job market. The unprecedented investment by the federal government in providing grants for college had another important purpose: to reduce projected unemployment rolls and, at the same time, help restructure the U.S. labor market by producing a more skilled labor force.
State governments acted as a partner in that macroeconomic strategy. Under the leadership of Gov. Earl Warren, for instance, California expanded markedly the physical capacity of their public higher education systems by establishing new campuses, hiring new faculty, eventually creating their own scholarship programs to supplant the GI Bill, and subsequently reaping tremendous economic and social benefits from the investment in human capital.
The Role of Higher Education in National Economic Recovery Today
That basic strategy of expanding funding for individuals to attend a college or university and to get a degree, and funding the expansion of higher education institutions, is a key component thus far missing in the national debate over the route to economic recovery.
Expanding higher education funding and enrollment capacity may be as important as any other policy lever to cope with an economic downturn, including funding for infrastructure. Any new federal initiative to boost access could also be designed for an immediate impact on the economy.
The overall educational attainment of a nation is, in fact, much more important today than some 60 years ago. Broad access is increasingly viewed as vital for socioeconomic mobility and demand for higher education generally goes up during economic downturns. Individuals who lose their jobs, or fear low prospects for employment in declining economies, see a university or college degree as a means to better employment prospects.
In some significant measure, it is likely that enrollment demand will go up, particularly in the public higher education sector, because tuition costs are generally much lower than in the private independent and for-profit sectors. We are already seeing evidence that many students who had planned to attend private or out-of-state public colleges will turn to cheaper in-state options.
Yet most state and local governments are in the midst of wholesale cutting of their budgets, the initial rounds of large and succeeding cuts to their public higher education systems.
To make ends meet, places like CSU simply cannot afford more part-time, let alone full-time, faculty to teach the classes -- this despite a 20 percent increase in freshman applications over last year. In the face of this significant rise in demand, CSU plans to cut its enrollment by some 10,000 students. That would mean a net 10 percent cut in total freshman admitted for 2009-10 over this academic year. Most CSU undergraduates are in their mid-20s, meaning some sizable number of students will be displaced, forced into an eroding labor market.
CSU’s planned limit on enrollment is in reaction to successive years of major budget cuts, including a mid-year cut of some $66 million and probably larger cuts next academic year. CSU already took a $31.3 million cut earlier this year.
The ten-campus University of California system might follow suit. Adjusted for inflation and enrollment growth, state funding on a per-student basis at UC has fallen nearly 40 percent since 1990 -- from $15,860 in 1990 to $9,560 today in current, inflation-adjusted dollars. The UC president and the Board of Regents have made preliminary threats of a similar reduction to that of CSU in freshman admissions that would equate to a 6 percent overall reduction in the universities' system-wide undergraduate enrollment.
Admittedly, such threats in the past have acted as negotiating positions with the state legislature and governor. But these are not ordinary times, and this is not an ordinary recession.
The net effect of any enrollment caps in the public four-year institutions is a seemingly unrealistic expectation that California’s community colleges will act as a buffer, absorbing the spill-off of students denied admission at UC and CSU and the general rise in demand for higher education. That won’t happen.
California’s community colleges are already facing initial cuts of $332.2 million. There will be no additional funding for expanding the community colleges, with one estimate that more than 250,000 students will be turned away -- the colleges will be cutting the number of part-time lecturers in the midst of unprecedented demand for classes. I sense that that number will be much larger without a proactive mitigation.
A similar cascading scenario will occur across the nation. Millions of students are already flocking to community colleges and public universities at a time of midyear cuts that are forcing colleges to lay off faculty members and cut classes; many higher education institutions are already freezing enrollment.
In New York, Gov. David Paterson faces a large budget deficit and plans midyear cuts of some $348 million in the budget for the State University of New York’s 64-campus system and the City University of New York. This comes on top of some $196 million in cuts made earlier in this fiscal year. All of this will have an impact on access and enrollment rates.
After a long period of declining public financing for higher education on a per student basis, most public universities and colleges have little room to yet again do more with less. State budget cuts for higher education already in the works will undoubtedly have a negative impact on student access rates for this academic year. But the largest impact will come in 2009-10 when tumbling state budget allocations will correspond with rising demand for higher education.
Beyond bonds for construction, most states, like California, have severe limits on borrowing. Most must provide balanced budgets under their state constitutions. Some may raise taxes to cover growing real and projected deficits; but most will cut deeply into public expenditures, including education.
Public university and college systems in California and other states are no longer interested in pitching in to expand enrollment without the resources; now they are pushing back under the rubric of self-preservation. Every institution is increasingly sensing that they are on their own, and not part of a collective effort to serve a state, to serve a nation. No one that I am aware of has modeled the potential impact of this cascading effect of the disparate actions of state governments, multi-campus systems, and individual institutions cutting budgets and cutting enrollment.
The traditional lever of public college and universities to help cope with declining state and local revenues is to raise tuition and fees. However, I sense that we are at a point where significant fee increases, matched by rising unemployment rates and continued constrictions in credit markets, will cause a huge, artificial downward pressure on the ability of students to enroll in all types of institutions -- from community colleges to major selective universities. Further, additional tuition revenue will likely not cover the added cost of expanding classes and campus infrastructure required to meet enrollment demand.
Would it be smart to constrict access to higher education just when unemployment rates are potentially peaking?
U.S. Lags Behind Other Nations
The U.S. is already lagging behind many international competitors in the number of students entering and, even more importantly, graduating with a college degree. Less than two decades ago, America had the highest rate not only of students who entered a college or university, but also of those who then actually earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. Now the U.S. ranks a rather meager 16th in the percentage of young people who get a degree – behind Australia, Iceland, New Zealand, Finland, Denmark, Poland, the Netherlands, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden, Israel, Hungary, and Japan. Indeed, and sadly, the U.S. is one of the few OECD nations in which the older generation has achieved higher rates of education attainment than the younger generation.
Here is the gist of the problem: too few students who graduate from high school; too many part-time students; too high a proportion of students (nearly 50 percent) in two-year community colleges, most never getting a degree; too many part-time faculty; an absence of long-term goals at the national level and by state governments regarding higher education access and graduation rates; and to date no well-conceived funding models to assure quality.
This is a problem that needs national leadership. The U.S. continues to grow in population. Today, the U.S. enrolls about 19 million students in degree-granting colleges and universities. If current participation rates remain flat, and states and federal governments don’t cut further the budgets for higher education, we would grow by about 2.5 million students over the next 15 years. But if the U.S. were to match the progress of our economic competitors and expand access to its growing population, one study indicates it would need to grow by more than 10 million students.
The deleterious effects of further and large-scale cuts to higher education, combined with modest improvements to an already inadequate financial aid system for low- and middle-income students, would pose a triple hit for the U.S.
First, access and graduate rates would decline in the near and possibly long term, depending on the depth of the economic collapse and the actions of government. The U.S. already has the highest percentage of part-time students among those enrolled in higher education when compared to economic competitors -- not by choice largely, but a result of personal economic necessity. This indicates the fragility of current access rates.
Second, unemployment rates would climb higher and probably have disproportionate effects on working- and middle-class students
Third, depending on the actions of other economic competitors, most of whom have concrete national policies to expand higher education access and graduation rates (the U.S. has no such policy), the U.S. will accelerate its international decline in overall educational attainment.
A Happier Scenario
Another and much happier scenario, however, would be that the federal government, in partnership with state governments, view higher education as a vital component for economic recovery and long-term prosperity -- on par with new investments in infrastructure and stop-gap measures to stabilize housing and credit markets.
How to adequately assess options and their costs and benefits is a complicated question. For example, what would be the potential impact of greater, or lower, access to college on, for instance, unemployment rates?
At the same time, the incoming Obama administration must decide among a growing number of economic recovery initiatives, each with their own interest groups and heartfelt supporters. Everyone has his or her hand out. Weighing the benefits and costs of competing demands for federal tax dollars will be increasingly difficult.
An exploratory Commission on Higher Education, not unlike what President Harry Truman formed in 1946 but with more urgency, and possibly an initial budget overseen by the new secretary of education, could provide a larger vision and contemplate a range of options -- big-picture analysis that the myopic Spellings Commission simply ignored in its fixation with creating new accountability regimes. Accountability is not an end, but a means, and that was seemingly lost on Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, the commission’s leadership, and a cadre of higher education pundits.
President-elect Barack Obama has repeatedly noted the importance of raising educational attainment rates, and improving the quality of education in the U.S.. The Obama campaign did offer a number of important policy initiatives related to higher education. These included greater reliance on direct loans from the federal government (instead of subsidizing private bank loans), a long-overdue simplification of federal financial aid forms by linking applications to tax filings, marginal funding for community colleges to create more job- oriented programs, indexing Pell Grant maximum awards to the rate of inflation, and offering a one-time refundable tax credit of $4,000 to a student who agrees to 100 hours of public service over two years.
These are all good ideas. But they are simply not enough in light of mega-trends in the economy and America’s underperformance in education.
Short-term and immediate policies could include significant directed subsidization via state governments of their public higher education sectors relative to projected near term enrollment demand -- to essentially stop states or major public universities from capping enrollment or turning away large numbers of students. Federal Pell Grants for low-income students, already severely underfunded relative to demand, could be increased significantly in the amount awarded and the number of students receiving aid.
Resources for direct loans could be substantially expanded and made more generous with the possibility of a one-time grant for middle-income students to attend a participating public or accredited private institution that would also receive a small federal allocation. In return, these institutions would promise to reduce tuition for students enrolled in the federal program -- perhaps by 5 percent for publics, and 10 percent for selective privates. Such programs, like the GI Bill, helped to galvanize the higher education institutions in the nation, public and private, into understanding their distinct and significant role in real and anticipated hard times.
Another idea might be to tie federal unemployment compensation with access to an accredited higher education institution -- perhaps targeted to certain groups as an option.
Any infrastructure investment initiative should also focus a portion of its portfolio to support public college and university building programs that expand enrollment capacity, like classrooms, or meet research and faculty needs -- such as offices and research labs. Such a program would reflect the federal government’s brief but important investment in university and college building programs during the mid-1960s and could require matching funding from state governments or private enterprise.
There is always the question of whether to fund the individual students or institutions. Past federal policy has focused on funding of grants and loans to individuals. But there is urgency to venture, at least on a temporary basis, into funding key and largely public institutions -- the main providers who have explicit public purposes.
Long-term goals need to assess the overall health of the U.S.’s still famous, but strained, higher education system and what national and state goals might be conjured. In states with projected long-term and large population growth, like Florida, California and Texas, there has been no coordinated assessment of actual enrollment capacity. Can they grow to meet ambitious efforts to increase educational attainment levels? What would constitute a “smart growth” approach to capacity building?
Cost containment in higher education, particularly among selective institutions, and how to finance public higher education is also an important long-term policy issue that needs a macro-view. But the vast majority of public higher education, I would argue, is vastly underfunded, and not, as many critics like to crow, overtly inefficient.
What alternative models are there for financing public higher education? A national consideration of alternative funding models could help guide states, and public and private institutions, toward a funding scheme that aligns with a national goal for educational attainment. This could include providing states with guidelines and models of best practices. Issues related to fees and tuition in public colleges and universities, for instance, are almost hopelessly mired in state politics, and often misguided analysis on affordability.
For good and bad, the U.S. higher education system has been relatively stable over the past 50-plus years, subject to only marginal efforts at reform and reorganization. Stability is important for institution-building and focusing on the quality of what institutions are designated to do within their respective state network of public and private colleges and universities. But the lack of innovation and serious consideration of the overall fit of the current system with current and future economic and socio-economic mobility needs of society is already proving to be a significant problem for the U.S. -- one among many.
States should not be left on their own to reinvigorate and use their higher education systems to mitigate the economic downturn or to, essentially, chart the future labor force and, ultimately, competitiveness of the US. Simply stated, they are not now capable of charting aggressive and enlightened policies related to higher education like they did in the now very distant past. As noted, they are hampered by growing and competing demands for the tax dollar including health care, prisons, and they face significant limits on their ability to launch a spending program suitable for meeting rising enrollment demand.
Further, states generally lack a broad understanding or concern regarding issues related to national competitiveness and the larger problems of growing social and economic stratification. Arguably, now is the time for strategic period of federal government investment, targeted to individual students and supporting colleges and universities.
What will other nations do with their network of universities and colleges in the midst of the unprecedented turn in the global economy? The jury is out. Perhaps a few nations, and in particular their ministries of education, have grasped the role of higher education for mitigating the severe economic swing we are experiencing now. They will redouble their efforts to expand the role of higher education during the economic downturn, or at least protect that sector from large cuts in funding.
Those nations that resort to uncoordinated and reactionary cutting of funding, and reductions in access, will find themselves at a disadvantage for dealing with impact of the worldwide recession, and will lose ground in the race to develop human capital suitable for the modern era.
Like the Roosevelt and later Truman presidential administrations, the incoming Obama administration should more fully integrate higher education policy into its economic recovery strategy. The U.S. is at a critical juncture in effectively combating the severity of the economic downturn, and higher education will either be an important mitigation, or a large-scale drag on economic recovery. What is missing thus far is the national leadership that can do something proactive.
John Aubrey Douglass
John Aubrey Douglass’ most recent book is The Conditions for Admissions: Access, Equity, and the Social Contract of Public Universities (Stanford Press). He writes about global trends in higher education. A version of this paper was published by UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education in its on-line Research and Occasional Paper Series.
A new national report card released earlier this month by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education reveals that the nation is not making enough progress on college affordability -- and needs more concerted action from universities and state policymakers. Nearly all states have received grades of F in this area since 2000. This report is a harbinger of a looming stalemate on higher education for the nation’s young people, one that demands quick attention.
In the course of his presidential campaign, Barack Obama said his administration would invest in higher education to ensure access and affordability, as well as support research, economic development, and international competitiveness.
With colleges and universities, more than ever, driving our economy and providing the key to our children’s future, these would be critical investments for the nation. But the Obama administration is unlikely to be able to make them, at least in the near term. Other priorities -- the bailouts, declining tax revenues, two wars, health care, energy sustainability, the soaring deficit -- will consume federal resources. Even if the Association of American Universities, the American Council on Education, the Carnegie Corporation and others garner a share of the economic stimulus package for campus facilities and student aid, as they have recently proposed, such funding will scarcely make a dent in the larger needs that directly affect access and affordability.
One can imagine the consequences. Unable to fund its higher education agenda, Washington will pressure the states to assume responsibility for college access and affordability. After all, responsibility for education is constitutionally assigned to the states. As a meeting of the National Governors Association earlier this month made plain, however, the states are also confronting major deficits, with sharp revenue declines and the rising costs of social programs that seek to respond to the recession. They will not only be unable to make additional investments in higher education, but will be forced to make cuts, since education is a principal item in state budgets.
Both Washington and the state capitols are then likely to turn to institutions of higher education to carry out the President-elect’s unfunded agenda of promoting economic growth through innovation and training. But colleges and universities will also be unable to carry the water. They are facing the same realities as government as they grapple with declining endowments, increased student financial aid needs, reduced government support, and diminished giving by donors.
Because colleges and universities will have difficulty responding, government may well assume that they are unwilling or unable to carry out the desired agenda--particularly the twin goals of increasing access for students from underrepresented groups and keeping tuition affordable for all families, as tuition levels rise out of reach of a growing number of families. The predictable response: hearings, demands for greater efficiency, calls for improved accountability, and perhaps increased regulation, like that imposed on the health care industry.
The most likely outcome of such a situation: finger-pointing, with the federal government decrying inaction by the states and universities, the states laying the blame at the feet of Washington and higher education, and institutions of higher education decrying the unreasonable demands and inadequate support of government at all levels. If this happens -- and without intervention it surely will -- our country and our children will be the big losers.
But this outcome is by no means inevitable. To avert this stalemate, President Obama could convene a summit, bringing together Washington, the states, and colleges and universities to triage the higher education goals he championed during the campaign -- and to focus particularly on access and affordability, which are of greatest concern to the largest numbers of ordinary Americans.
Attendees for the summit should represent the full breadth of higher education -- two-year and four-year and doctoral institutions, state-supported and independent -- as well as the executive and legislative branches of the federal government and the key state education leaders, including governors and state higher education officers. That said, this has to be a select, influential group with the power to effect real change -- no more than five per side.
These leaders should examine the real resources available to higher education, not as fat juicy pork but as basic sustenance for the key issues: access and affordability, research, economic development, and global competitiveness. The summit should be structured in three parts: first, a one-day gathering to identify key issues and priorities; second, a one-month period for a staff working group to develop and provide options; and third, a final one- or two-day meeting to reach conclusions.
The outcome of this gathering must go beyond rhetoric. The three sectors must agree to a practical, achievable contract that outlines specific roles for each sector. And all this should happen in the first 100 days of the Obama administration, before revenues are otherwise committed.
Such a meeting of minds would render an essential service to the nation and our children. Without it, the resulting gridlock will serve only to deny access to education and opportunity to more and more of our nation’s students -- and thereby prolong both our current economic spiral and the longer-term cycle of poverty.
Arthur Levine is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and former president of Teachers College, Columbia University.
In 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act, known as the G.I. Bill. It offered returning veterans a series of benefits, the best-remembered of which was funding to attend college and defray living expenses.
The primary rationale for the legislation was not to extend educational access or affordability. Rather, it was a labor market strategy designed to reduce the tidal wave of veterans seeking jobs and avoid the high unemployment rates that followed World War I. The extraordinary success of this program not only avoided unemployment, but catapulted millions into the middle class and helped create the most sophisticated workforce the world had, to that point, ever seen.
Today, as a component of the nation’s stimulus package, we need an updated version of the G.I. Bill.
Unlike the original bill, which rewarded service, this new bill would be a rescue measure.
As in the past, a primary goal would be to decrease pressure on what today is a shrinking job market and limit growing unemployment rates. But another equally important goal would be to prepare the more educated labor force the nation needs for economic development and global competitiveness at a time when a dwindling number of jobs are available to individuals without a college education and its associated skills.
The stimulus G.I. Bill would seek to assure both college access and affordability. It would focus on two populations -- low-income Americans who attend college at dramatically lower rates than their fellow citizens and middle- and upper-middle-class populations for whom the cost of college is growing far faster than their paychecks. Support would be means-tested -- graduated based upon need. Higher education would be free for families with incomes below $100,000
The new G.I. Bill would be extended to all Americans who have earned a high school diploma or G.E.D. The scholarship would cover the costs of tuition, fees, books and living expenses for up to four years of full-time college attendance, as a last-dollar scholarship. That is, a student would have to apply for and use all other forms of financial aid available to them first -- family, government, private, institutional and personal -- and the scholarship would provide the last dollars needed to fill any gaps.
College tuition and expenses would be set at the local cost of attending a public community college for the first two years and a public four-year college for the final two years. Living stipends would be set at the equivalent of a full-time minimum wage job, adjusted to local costs of living and a student’s number of dependents.
Much like programs that bail out corporations, the scholarship would give the government an equity stake in the student’s future. In exchange for government support, recipients would provide the government a tax supplement, perhaps an additional one or two percent of their yearly income, annually for life.
The government would receive short-term savings in unemployment benefits and the cost of other social programs -- prisons, welfare, health care -- which typically rise during hard times. In the longer run, government would benefit from the higher salaries and taxes that college-educated people pay, as well as the additional equity share in taxes that recipients of this funding would be required to pay.
Over the past few years, many proposals have been made to increase college access and affordability. Most involve increasing Pell Grant support or making more loan money available. This proposal is not remarkably different. What is distinctive in the idea would be its timing, the statement it makes about supporting people as part of a bailout, its historic roots, its bundling of existing financial aid programs, and its potential to generate additional revenues.
The original G.I. Bill, and its reauthorizations, built the modern American middle class. A new civilian G.I. Bill would preserve that middle class, providing a wise investment in the most precious resource America has -- its human capital. It is difficult to imagine a better or more greatly needed economic stimulus.
Arthur Levine is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and former president of Teachers College, Columbia University.