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.
Inside Higher Edrecently published an interview with Roberto González, an associate professor of anthropology at San Jose State University, on the Human Terrain System (HTS), a U.S. Army program in which social scientists are embedded with military units. The questions were thoughtful and well asked, but the answers bear little resemblance to the work I conducted as a field social scientist deployed by HTS. I would like to explain what the goals of the program are, what we do, and why we do it, as well as try to clarify misperceptions that arise from unfamiliarity with military culture, terminology, planning and practice.
My job in Iraq was to represent the population to promote nonlethal planning and operations. When a mission is conceptualized, when course of action recommendations have to be made, when decisive points are identified for the commander, my job is to present what the population wants and expects, how it will react, and at all times promote nonlethal options.
This last portion, the promotion of nonlethal options, is of exceeding importance for two reasons. The first is the nature of my mission, and the overall mission of the HTS – we have an ethical responsibility to bring quality socio-cultural information and nonlethal possibilities to the commander’s attention. This is related to the second imperative, which goes to the heart of Counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine. The three most important elements of COIN are 1) to empower the lowest level (the population), 2) to work from the bottom up (the population) and 3) nonlethal operations accomplish more than lethal ones. In a nutshell, my job is to keep the population, the effects of military operations on the population, and nonlethal options front and center in the commander and command staff’s awareness.
There are a number of ways that an HTT can keep the population and nonlethal options on the front burner. In the case of my team, we used very standard research and analysis methods to get at both primary and secondary open source data. At all times we endeavored to engage in best practices, both in terms of methodology and ethics. We essentially used four basic methods of collection: archival, process observation, participant observation, and semi-structured elite level interviews.
Our archival research had three different purposes. The first was to do our homework about our brigade’s operating environment before we deployed with them to Iraq. The second was to then go through the information on the population already archived by the brigade that we were replacing. The final component was to keep abreast of political, social, religious, and economic events in our operating environment, Iraq, the Middle East, and in some cases, the U.S., which could affect the host nation population that we, and the Army, had to interact with on a daily basis. We also process and participant observed a wide variety of meetings and events. At all of these we identified ourselves fully, explained who we were, what we were doing (serving as socio-cultural advisors for the Army), and asked for permission to ask questions and to attribute or not. At all times we used standard, basic protocols for conducting process and participant observation.
When conducting our elite level interviews, part of a four-month-long tribal study and history, we used formal, documented informed consent. The documents were prepared in English, translated into Arabic, and the interview subject retained one copy and I, as research director, retained one. When requested, anonymity was granted. The Army personnel we worked with never had access to these, to the internal ethical review process of the team, or to the raw information of someone’s identity when anonymity was requested. In fact, because of the social science backgrounds of many of the officers we dealt with daily, they not only understood the protocols, but respected them. Moreover, on one occasion the protocols actually allowed me to provide necessary information to a battalion commander. The sheikh I had just interviewed had consented to my attributing his information, which allowed me to answer the commander’s questions without feeling like I was boxed in. Ethical and methodological best practices actually enabled me to properly do my job. On another occasion, information that I collected was useful in helping the battalion commander, as I provided information that presented a set of nonlethal options for resolving a problem regarding a local mosque.
The results of this four-month study, in combination with data acquired from engaging in participant observation with everyday Iraqis, as well as internally displaced persons, provide very important insight and findings regarding Iraqi tribal behavior, Iraqi politics, religion, rule of law, as well as the stabilization and reconstruction that is being undertaken. The results are being prepared for peer review and publication.
The information we obtained was also packaged and provided to our brigade, the battalions, maneuver companies, as well as the embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team and the U.S. Department of State/U.S. Embassy. Had this information been available when Operation Iraqi Freedom was conceptualized, there would have been a greater chance of the initial stabilization and reconstruction being done in a better informed, more productive, and less lethal manner.
One of the other important points raised by Dr. González – and which I would like everyone to understand -- has to do with Army terminology. I went out on patrol as often as I could. Going on patrol means going out with a combat element, but it does not automatically mean going out to engage in combat or lethal operations. I went out on every mission I could that involved taking humanitarian assistance to the local Iraqis. And here’s the thing to remember – most of these involved going door to door. That’s right: The Army sends soldiers to towns, villages, and settlements to go door to door to deliver food, water, water purifiers, dental prophylaxis, toys, and other items on a regular basis. I also accompanied Civil Affairs teams to conduct assessments of infrastructure, attend meetings, and engage in medical operations among the local population.
In fact, while out on patrol my teammates and I were able to identify several archaeological sites. We brought this to the attention of brigade and battalion staffs, as well as the Cultural Heritage Officer at the U.S. Embassy and the head of the U.S. Army’s Archaeological Unit. We were able to preserve one site that was slated for development. And through collaboration with archaeologists at Penn State, University of Chicago, Harvard, the Army, and State Department, we created a comprehensive list and maps of all the sites in our operating environment so that the Army would know where construction could and could not take place.
The hallmark of good human terrain fieldwork lies in the reduction in the number of lethal operations, casualties inflicted and received. By doing our research, both primary and secondary, we were able to directly or indirectly conceptualize and influence virtually all of our brigade’s problem sets and provide nonlethal options to resolve them. My teammates and I were heavily involved with helping to write the brigade’s campaign plan. Every session always began with the Plans Officer and/or the Line of Effort (LOE) Chief asking what “does right look like for the Iraqis in our OE [operating environment] and how do we get them there?” Our job was to answer that question by taking our research and packaging it in a way that military personnel could easily and quickly digest. When we did this, we were able to ensure that the Army focused on the three most important aspects of COIN that I outlined above. This all translates into fewer injured or killed locals and, of course, fewer injured or killed American and Coalition Forces.
We do not do targeting, intelligence collection, or engage in any part of lethal and kinetic operations, although we do, like everyone, retain the right to self-defense. Contrary to the program’s most vocal critics, we are not using social science methodology to enable the Army to kill more Iraqis and Afghanis. In fact, one of our biggest successes was getting the Shriner’s Hospital in Boston, as well as a local Boston charity, to agree to treat a burned Iraqi boy and house and feed his family pro bono. When our Commander decided it was better for Iraqis to treat him we worked with a sister team in another OE to facilitate his access to treatment within the Iraqi Ministry of Health system.
This goes right to another point on terminology: The Army calls everything they engage in “targeting.” For instance, when the Commander goes to have dinner with a sheikh, that is referred to as targeting. This can easily lead to confusion by those who do not work with the military, so we have been encouraging them to use the terms “engage” and “engagement” instead of “target” and “targeting” when engaging in nonlethal operations. This is, actually, more than just a matter of semantics. By changing the way the military talks about nonlethal operations, we change the way they think about them, which further promotes nonlethal options.
In a nutshell, we are using our methodological skills to help the Army learn how to achieve their goals without having to use force. As someone with extensive methods training, in five different disciplines, and who has taught research methods, I can think of no more noble use than to use these skills to preserve life whenever possible. How many research and teaching academics can say the same about how they use their skills?
There is one set of related items that Dr. González mentions in his interview answers that I would like to address here. Despite what some personnel from the Foreign Military Studies Office wrote, we are not a “CORDs for the twenty-first century.” CORDs, a Vietnam-era initiative, was a full-fledged counterinsurgency program, utilizing both military and civilian advisors who lived with the local populations that they were working with and trained them on all aspects of government and governance. Moreover, they were training these populations in regards to stabilization and reconstruction. Importantly, because the CORDs personnel actually lived among the host nation population, they lived and died with them, so, when necessary, they fought with them. Human Terrain personnel do not live with the host nation population, nor do we fight with them. Rather we live on the military bases, go out with a military security escort, and return home to base after our engagements. We also are not involved with training the population, and we do not engage in stabilization or reconstruction projects. We are enabling advisors, not actors. The Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which are a State Department initiative, are the closest thing we have today to CORDs. The article that Dr. González mentions was published in the September/October 2006 issue of Military Review. As the first HTT did not deploy until February 2007, it was prepared well in advance of HTS becoming operational, and therefore cannot be construed as an accurate representation of HTS or its mission.
Project Phoenix, a separate Vietnam-era program, which too often is confused with, or mistakenly rolled into CORDs, is also not an applicable historical analog to HTS. This was a program advised by the Central Intelligence Agency and it largely involved Vietnamese trying to root out VietCong political cadres with the help of a small number of civilian advisors – mostly law enforcement personnel, not researchers. Unlike Project Phoenix, HTS is not engaged in identification and neutralization of targets.
I also want to make it very clear: The U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System is not connected or affiliated with other programs that have adopted the terminology of human terrain. This is important as Dr. González conflates HTS with these other initiatives and as such it is both inaccurate to confuse them, as well as unfair to HTS to try to paint us with the same brush.
While it is absolutely right to be concerned about learning the lessons of the past, the simple truth is I have yet to see or experience any evidence of the neo-colonial counterinsurgency that Dr. González describes. Regardless of whether you supported the politics and/or policies that led us into our current conflicts, as Americans we have a moral responsibility to leave Iraq and Afghanistan in as functional and stable a state of existence as possible.
Regardless of your politics regarding the war, if one has the skills and knowledge to help out, even a little bit, and one chooses not to, what does that say about that individual or organization? This is the question that the many academics who have found it easy to criticize the Human Terrain System, either from ignorance, misinformation, or political opposition to the policy decisions that led us into the war in Iraq, need to ask themselves.
Adam L. Silverman
Adam L. Silverman holds a doctorate in political science and criminology, masters' degrees in religion and international relations, and a bachelor's in Middle Eastern studies. He was the 2nd Brigade Combat Team/1st Armored Division field social scientist and socio-cultural advisor assigned to HTT IZ6 and is currently a social science advisor with the Human Terrain System. The ideas and opinions expressed in this essay are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the brigade, division, U.S. Army, or the Human Terrain System.
In a February address to Congress, President Obama stated that by 2020 our nation would need to regain its prominence as the world’s higher education leader if we are to enjoy the same kinds of economic success and stability that we have experienced during previous decades. This marked the first real admission by a U.S. president that we are no longer the global leader in higher education access and educational attainment. Furthermore, this statement indicates that we can no longer continue business as usual in the world of higher education policy, and that we must do more than simply argue at the federal level every two to four years about how much to increase the Pell Grant maximum or the aggregate subsidized loan cap for undergraduates. This limited discourse has resulted in stagnant progress for our nation while much of the rest of the world has developed new and more innovative policies. For us to get back on track and reach President Obama’s higher education objective by 2020, we need much higher levels of educational attainment for lower-income and underrepresented students.
Instead of promoting the same old arguments, we recommend a new direction – one that, ironically, has been excluded from federal policy dialogue for over 30 years, despite being an important component of the original Pell Grant or BEOG legislation in 1972.
In the early legislative history of what is now the Pell Grant program, Congress developed federal student aid grants to help economically disadvantaged students attend higher education institutions of their choice. In recognizing the educational disadvantage and substantially higher cost for educational services that accrue to the colleges and universities where many lower-income students enroll, the originally authorized Pell Grant or BEOG legislation envisioned direct institutional grants to colleges and universities that would accompany Pell Grant recipient students. These institutional grants were designed to provide the appropriate educational services necessary for these students to succeed and eventually graduate.
This original program, which was authorized in 1972 but never funded, was known as the “cost of education allowances” and was based on a similar concept advanced in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965, known as Title I. At the heart of this concept is the widely accepted premise that economically disadvantaged students cost more money to educate than students from wealthier backgrounds. Title I was created to provide supplemental federal funding to those elementary and secondary schools with above-average numbers of lower-income students. In 1972, the cost of education allowances program was authorized to achieve the same objective by providing supplemental resource support to colleges and universities in order to provide essential educational assistance to Pell Grant recipient students.
The time has come to resurrect this idea. If we are going to change the way colleges and universities approach economically disadvantaged students, we need to provide actual federal funding for these “cost of education allowances.” Currently, there are no fiscal incentives for colleges and universities to attract and graduate lower-income students. In fact, current federal direct student aid programs in their totality encourage colleges and universities to pursue more free market agendas by providing incentives for tuition-based financial strategies. This essentially means that higher cost institutions, both public and private, have disproportionately benefited from federal student aid funding due to the cost sensitivity embedded in the system. Additionally, by supporting tuition and fee-based strategies, the federal government has allowed state legislatures to more readily opt out of their funding responsibilities, resulting in continuous reductions in state tax support of public higher education. An indirect result of this existing system is that there are no incentives for lower cost institutions that serve the masses or states that strive to keep higher education affordable. One important, but unanticipated, outcome has been that as states increasingly withdraw their public support of public institutions, many universities have found other alternatives to educating more costly lower-income students, such as increasing out-of-state enrollments in exchange for less wealthy in-state students.
Also working against colleges and universities enrolling more lower-income students are current national ranking systems and the use of very simplistic institutional measurements by state authorities. Rankings such as the popular U.S. News & World Report indirectly encourage universities to reduce their lower-income student enrollments by rewarding higher graduation rates, admissions selectivity, and other variables that are aimed at promoting institutional prestige above common purpose. This is just wrong. Many state authorities have also begun prioritizing very simplistic institutional measurements such as graduation rates without any regard for the aggregate numbers of graduates or the socioeconomic status of the students educated at the various institutions.
In light of the many fiscal and cost-related disincentives for enrolling more lower-income students, it should not come as a surprise that we continue to see four-year public and private universities decrease their commitments to larger numbers of lower-income students. In fact, from 1972 to 2006 the nation has witnessed an overall decline in Pell Grant-eligible students as a percentage of the total student population. At public universities, the drop was from 41 percent to 34 percent, and from nearly 22 percent to 14 percent on all private four-year college and university campuses. These significant declines have occurred despite the nearly $100 billion in federal direct student aid grants, subsidized loans, and tax assistance currently available. We think this becomes a civil rights question.
However, for the colleges and universities that have maintained their commitment to lower-income and economically disadvantaged students, which have primarily been state comprehensive universities like the California State University and community colleges, the fiscal disincentives remain problematic. Over the last 30 years, public comprehensive universities and community colleges have seen a substantial decline in fiscal competitiveness when compared with higher tuition public and private institutions. The irony, of course, is that those institutions that serve the broader public good are increasingly fiscally disadvantaged for maintaining these critical missions.
To attempt to change this ominous direction to focus on the new generation of students with the greatest educational needs, it is imperative that we revisit the “cost of education allowances” program and develop a federal Title I type program for higher education institutions. This policy would provide a specific flat “capitation” institutional grant per lower-income student to every college and university that meets a minimal enrollment threshold of 20 percent. To ensure that these funds are properly devoted to student enrichment, this current proposal could be shaped to require that federal funds must be used to support campus-based academic and student service programsspecifically designed to assist Pell Grant-eligible students.Such a program could also create important and much needed fiscal incentives for public and private institutions to not only enroll, but to retain and graduate more lower-income and lower-middle income students. Also, the amount of the federal flat grant award to institutions could be moderately increased or decreased, based on state support for higher education. This would provide incentive for maintaining certain levels of public funding of higher education, similar to the non-supplanting provision found in Title I of ESEA. This additional maintenance of state effort provision could help better stabilize higher education funding, and thus better stabilize student tuition and fees as well.
This recommendation advanced by the California State University has earned support from numerous higher education economists and leaders, as well as from national organizations, such as the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and in the College Board’s recent report “Rethinking Student Aid” where a similar concept was advocated. Developing new federal policies that encourage states to maintain their commitment to financing widespread access and completion in higher education is essential if our nation is to reverse the relative international decline that we have experienced over the last few decades.
For nearly four decades, the federal government has prioritized an individualistic and market-oriented approach to funding higher education by simply putting resources in the hands of students. While this approach has been worthwhile, it has created a series of perverse fiscal and institutional incentives that could be remedied by the implementation of a new policy already authorized as part of the original 1972 legislative strategy. Creating financial incentives for institutions to remain committed or to recommit themselves to the public needs of society should be among the federal government’s highest priorities.
If we are ever going to reach President Obama’s goal of 2020, America is going to have to invest in our most needy students, who are disproportionally students of color, while also investing in those institutions that will serve them.
Charles B. Reed and F. King Alexander
Charles B. Reed is chancellor of the California State University System. F. King Alexander is president of California State University at Long Beach.
Why don’t we declare the bachelor’s degree obsolete? No, not education, not colleges and universities, not professors or libraries or students, just the four-year bachelor’s degree. (You might turn on your iPod while you read. You’ll see why.)
Western history traces this four-year package back to the University of Bologna, before Gutenberg, when the pedagogical constraint was the shortage of books. Students had to gather in large rooms while the professor read from one of the scarce books. Only Wikipedia, in my scrounging around, notes that the University of Al-Karaouine in Morocco and Al-Azhar University in Egypt preceded Bologna in their founding and in granting multi-year degrees.
Before dismissing any questions, note that this academic year has not been kind to U.S. higher education. Dead canaries litter the coal mines and the executive suites of U.S. colleges and universities as another academic year draws to a close. The capital markets have pulled out of major segments of lending for college loans. Wouldn’t even a Finance 101 student say this exit means the capital markets are challenging the value of a college degree? The U.S. Senate Finance Committee has demanded explanations about outcomes from the wealthiest colleges and universities.
Charles Miller, the Spellings Commission chair, gutted the College Board for poor math after the College Board offered the old chestnut that college is a good investment because graduates will earn $1 million more in their lifetimes. In Massachusetts, legislators, unable to find the public good from the nation’s wealthiest and self-described best colleges and universities, had the temerity to wonder about taxing endowments. A problematic solution (taxing endowments) does not erase a solid question.
The latest trend in higher education is how many students need five and even six years to arrange four years of college. Half the nation’s twenty million college students are in two-year community colleges, with the odds of achieving a four-year degree against them. The price of the degree, what customers pay in tuition, discounted or not, keeps rising. This cripples families in cost and debt and shuts out those whose income prohibit them from even thinking about college. This nation, any nation, needs all the educated citizens we can create. We seem to be failing.
I am the first to agree that students fortunate enough to go to an Ivy League school, Stanford, Duke, Williams, Amherst, Grinnell, or the flagship state universities are part of what any gathering of one or more educational leaders calls “the best higher education system in the world.” I am one of those graduates. What, though, does that greatness do for those the millions shut out or struggling as part-time students? All the undergraduate spots in all those fine institutions amount to a tiny fraction of the 20 million students now in college.
I keep looking for how to describe what’s going on. I keep reading the fine anthologies of war reporting and civil rights reporting from the Library of America. In metaphor, I feel closer to the war correspondents. People are dying in the rest, the “not the best in the world,” segment of U.S. higher education today.
In the civil rights comparison, I keep looking for the James Farmer, the Julian Bond, the Martin Luther King, the Thurgood Marshall to speak out for the students whom we, the people, are failing to educate. I keep looking for the Justice Department officials -- the Nicholas Katzenbach, the John Doar, the Burke Marshall -- or someone who will stand up for equality and against a federal system that allocates tens of thousands of federal dollars in tax benefits and other subsidies to students at Yale and Williams and Harvard while arcane rules and impenetrable paperwork prevent a student working two jobs at a community college from receiving a $4,000 federal Pell Grant. I keep asking in my reporting, “Never mind how Yale and Princeton spend their own money. What about just what the federal government spends on each student who has found his or her way to college? Aren’t the Yale student and the community college student both U.S. citizens?” I know, I know how many people are weary of that question from me.
I’m left to wonder what I’m missing. Perhaps the next unasked question is about this product we call college, the four-year bachelor’s degree. In defending the high cost of education, college and university presidents and business officers have taken everything into account except the fundamental cost of delivery. In MBA speak, the central cost driver of a college education is not health insurance, salaries, rising oil costs, or even costly academic journals. It is the four-year, 36-course structure that determines the cost of a college degree. This model, leading to annual tuitions and fees of $25,000 at public colleges and $50,000 at many private ones, crushes families with $100,000 to $200,000 in cost and debt.
Impossible to imagine the end of the bachelor's degree packaged into four years? Most of us -- households or other enterprises -- from time to time take a look at the fundamentals of our budgets and ask, “Is there another way?” As an example, consider the bloodless iPod and MP3 revolution. What happened? A demographic cohort, people roughly 16 to 25 years old who wanted access to one song at a time in a form that could easily be shared among friends, revolted and created a new market when the music industry refused any modifications or price breaks.
How can I present this outlandish question, and some solutions, with any hope of a hearing? I put my “greatest education in the world” to use and pulled out Thomas Paine (1737-1809), a man with a mind and a pen who did get we, the people, thinking. Using Paine’s structure to think these issues through, I wrote a pamphlet. I asked Frank Kramer, owner of the independent Harvard Bookstore, what a price would be that’s low enough for an impulse purchase but high enough to make the pamphlet worth ringing up if the store keeps all the proceeds. “Three dollars, but you need endorsements,” he said. Columnists cannot be choosy. I accepted damnations, too.
Before cashiering this question about ending the bachelor’s degree, consider a passage from the introduction to patriot Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense, published in 1776.
“Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”
Wick Sloane, who writes The Devil’s Workshop, won a fellowship to write about community colleges from the Hechinger Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University. This column and the attached pamphlet flow from that work.
In his first State of the Union Address, President Obama boldly asked for every American to commit to obtaining an additional year of higher education or training. He also set a goal that by 2020, “America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” There are two problems with this education plan. First, we have already achieved it. Second, even if we were not already the world leader in higher education attainment, it is far from clear that we would want to be.
OECD data seem to indicate that the U.S. no longer is the world leader in the share of its population obtaining a college degree (trailing Canada and Japan). However, at 29.4 percent, the percentage of Americans aged 25 or older with a college degree has never been higher (this trend holds for blacks and Hispanics, albeit at lower levels). Twenty years ago the share was below 20 percent – so our increase during that time has been nearly 50 percent. The U.S. is making substantial progress in educating its population at the postsecondary level. What is the problem?
Apparently, other countries are making progress at an even faster rate. U.S. improvement was only 15th best among 22 advanced countries whose group average increase was 75 percent since 1985, including Portugal, Austria, Spain, Korea, Italy, and Ireland – which have each doubled their college attainment rates. For a variety of reasons the OECD data report higher educational attainment than data from other sources. Economists Robert Barro and Jong-Wha Lee have extensively studied cross-country data, made adjustments for attainment by age and differences in the higher education systems across countries, and have found that the college attainment rate in the United States was over 50 percent larger than in the next most educated country, Korea. One reason for such dramatic differences is that the over-65 population in the U.S. is far more accomplished than their counterparts across the world – the OECD data look only at the 25-64 year old cohort.
Discussions about attainment statistics typically proceed under the inauspicious assumption that they are relevant. Rarely mentioned are reasons why such goals are important, and whether securing more higher education in particular is the best way (or even a good way) to achieve certain goals.
Is the president’s goal to increase the output and productivity of the American economy beyond what it would otherwise be? If so, then expanding the pool of graduates might do the trick if the number of Americans receiving a college diploma was the sole causal factor in determining economic growth. Alas, it is not. Education is but one of many ingredients in a mysterious growth recipe. Producing valuable goods and services requires the “right” mix of physical capital, labor skills, technological advances, institutions (such as secure property rights, the rule of law, customs and mores that promote trust, and so forth) and more than a sprinkle of luck. This mix differs across countries and over time and the recipe is wholly unknowable to any individual or group of individuals – in fact there is no recipe to follow. Every professional and lay social scientist to ever walk the face of the earth has gone to his grave trying to solve the mystery of growth – I do not expect any in our generation to enjoy a better fate.
More education has to be a good thing. After all, receiving more schooling can’t make you less productive, right? Education is like exercise, reading, spending time with one’s children, and sleeping – each of these is good for you. It is obvious that dedicating more attention to each of these is good. It is obvious … and wrong – for both individuals and societies as a whole.
While investing in each of these likely generates enormous benefits when starting from scratch, at some point each additional unit invested generates fewer benefits than the one before it – just as eating that fourth doughnut brings you less satisfaction than did the second. What if these so-called “diminishing returns” never set in for education? In a world of scarce time and resources, they must, albeit indirectly. Dedicating more resources to the production of educated workers must come at the expense of resources dedicated to creating other important capital goods, institutions, or consumption goods. An individual cannot dedicate 24 hours in a day to everything, nor can society dedicate all of its resources to everything. Put another way, if merely leading the world in educational attainment is desirable, why not aim to have every American receive a college degree? Better yet, why not aim to have every American earn a Ph.D.?
Is Education Necessary?
Leaving aside the possibility that higher education serves only a signaling function there is still room to ask the question: is education a necessary condition for economic achievement? A good deal of economic evidence points to a strong positive relationship across countries between educational attainment and economic growth. Given the small sample sizes involved in these studies and the difficulty of controlling all the factors influencing growth I would not stake much money defending these findings. To illustrate just one difficulty, were you to collect data on the time people spent on Facebook I am sure it would show up as a strong positive in growth estimations.
There are notable exceptions to the received wisdom. Several African countries made commitments to education since 1970 that were comparable to the countries with successful growth stories from that time, with no considerable economic growth to speak of. Hong Kong became one of the wealthiest regions in the world before it began any substantial investments in education. Within the United States there is a surprisingly small correlation between “economically dynamic states” and the level of educational attainment. In fact, the rank order correlation between how dynamic the state’s economy is and its share of bachelors degrees is only 0.34. While clearly some of the most dynamic states such as Massachusetts and California have terrific educational systems, other dynamic states such as Oklahoma, while short on college graduates, use some of the other “ingredients” mentioned above to promote their development. To be clear, I am not arguing that education is not important. What this does show is that neither is it a guarantee of success, nor lack of it a guarantee of failure.
Education and Human Capital
Education qua education is not a bad thing. It is nonetheless a mistake to conflate formal education with accumulating relevant human capital – the bundle of skills, experience, discipline, etc. required for an individual to produce things of value (broadly considered).
Colleges indeed develop social skills, help individuals identify with peers, and inculcate productive behavior – particularly important for students that did not grow up in an environment conducive to these habits. However, college also contains a considerable consumption component (this is no longer the exclusive domain of elite four-year colleges), and as information technology continues to advance at a breathtaking pace, so too does the opportunity for individuals to acquire important human capital outside of the academy. Despite the dizzying array of colleges, the forgoing factors might give one pause before urging the masses of Americans to attend college as the best way for them to accumulate human capital. These same factors are making it increasingly likely that the super-talented will eschew such formal training in favor of more customized real-life education.
Suppose that education is synonymous with human capital accumulation. Focusing on average educational attainment still makes the erroneous assumption that a year of additional education to every citizen increases the stock of human capital the same for each citizen, and also overlooks the possibility that changes in the quality of different levels of educational attainment may be more or less valuable investments than sending more people to college. For example, improving the stock of useful knowledge might be better accomplished by encouraging existing college graduates to obtain advanced degrees, with no change in high school graduate behavior. Alternatively, it might mean the same aggregate level of college completions, but changing who goes to college and who does not. It would be a wondrous coincidence if having lots of Americans complete four years of formal higher education was the appropriate way to increase the stock of human capital in America.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
There are practical obstacles to reaching the president’s goal. Despite the measured and well publicized benefits of going to college, one-third of high-school graduates never attend, and roughly 50 percent of those that do attend actually remain until completion. To those of us who have taught large introductory courses (even in highly ranked universities) these figures are unsurprising. Aside from the considerable difficulty many of my students have writing, a number of them have basic vocabulary difficulties – as words such as scrutiny, anomaly, ascertain, isolate and mitigate continue to vex them.
It is a mathematical fact that as we expand college enrollments beyond what they are today, the average quality of students will go down. And while evidence is very strong that the current returns to receiving a college degree are quite large, increasing the supply of college-educated labor (everything else constant) puts downward pressure on these returns. Are political leaders and the educational establishment prepared for this, particularly if these trends -- by significantly increasing the enrollment of poorly prepared students at non-elite colleges -- increase the advantages of attending a prestigious college?
As enrollments increase, so too will financial pressures at most colleges. Student demand has recently surged in the U.S. and despite the fact that real state expenditures have been increasing at healthy clips over that time, per student expenditures have not kept pace. Proposals on the table to expand educational attainment include refundable tax credits and an expansion of Pell Grants – but these present a problem for many state colleges and universities in the form of an unfunded type of mandate. While they may help students afford college attendance, tuition and fees reflect only a small portion of the total cost of educating students at even the lowest cost colleges. Institutions with little excess capacity may find themselves in an increasingly difficult financial position particularly if they face political pressure to keep tuition low. Such supply issues are commonly overlooked in proposals that focus on expanding access on the demand side.
Skinning the Cat
The U.S. is already the world leader in its financial commitment to higher education – dedicating almost three percent of GDP to the sector (a share that has been rising, not falling, over time). Spending more might make sense, but rarely in these discussions does one encounter the question, “At what cost?” Does it make sense to sacrifice more and better carpenters or professional baseball players just to lead the world in college completions? Perhaps I am overplaying that hand. But there are many ways for individuals and societies to improve their human capital and productivity without relying on political forces to put more people through college.
Migration is one of the most powerful ways for an individual to augment human capital. International immigration vividly demonstrates this – a poor person living on $2 per day who migrates to the United States to accept a minimum wage job would experience a 20-fold increase in living standards just by moving here. Migration within the United States from areas with low-capital and low-productivity toward areas with more capital and higher productivity will have a similar effect. If the U.S. wishes to raise its average education levels, it would be far cheaper to simply encourage more immigration of educated workers from abroad. While such a move would undoubtedly alleviate some of America’s Social Security and Medicare problems, its low savings “problem” and its inner-city problems, it is a political non-starter.
Incidentally, that the rest of the world is “catching up” to the U.S. in educational attainment is cause for celebration, not alarm. For American consumers (we are all among them) this will mean access to innumerable new medicines, literature, advanced materials, etc. no less than if Americans were creating them. As the world grows wealthier and more connected, the market for American sourced goods and services is dramatically extended, as is the number of ideas for Americans to capitalize on – expanding opportunities for Americans without a formal education. Japanese auto-maker Toyota, for example, plans on producing its hybrid Prius here in the United States. Is this reason to worry about Japanese educational attainment surpassing ours?
Michael Rizzo is a lecturer in economics at the University of Rochester. He notes: “At the risk of being accused of taking away the party punch bowl, readers should know that I stand to benefit a great deal if more Americans partook in the college experience since I teach large numbers of introductory and intermediate economics students for a living.”
An unintended consequence of making access to college an entitlement readily available to all high school graduates is that serious study in high school has become optional, even for those intending to go to college. Without an incentive to study diligently, many students are disengaged in high school and, as a result, underprepared for college. Some freshmen arrive at college thinking that having fun is the main reason they are at college and that the pursuit of knowledge should be available for when they have nothing better to do.
This situation came about relatively recently, partly the result of a change in the meaning of financial aid. Until World War II, financial aid referred to traditional scholarships that were awarded to academically meritorious students who mostly also were needy. The G.I. Bill, which financed college for discharged veterans of World War II, foreshadowed broader programs of federal grants and loans -- 20 at present from the federal government, 17 from the Department of Education and 3 more from other federal agencies -- that essentially universalized "financial aid." Few of them require better than mediocre previous or current academic achievement. As a consequence, about 30 percent of incoming freshmen at four-year colleges and over half the freshmen at two-year colleges are assigned to remedial courses in writing, mathematics, or other courses.
Nevertheless, federal grant programs, though supplemented by state and private grant programs, were never able to cover the financial needs of the millions of college students whose families could not afford the rising costs of attending college. So Congress established several loan programs, some indirect loans whose federal subsidies made attractive to banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions, and some financed directly by the Department of Education. Unlike Pell Grants and other federal grant programs for college students such as work-study programs for needy college students, which do not have to be repaid, loans must be repaid with interest after graduating from or leaving college.
Repayment is a problem for student borrowers. Many of these loans are subprime -- toxic in the same sense that some mortgages were toxic. They are even more likely to be subprime than mortgages are; the only collateral is usually the student’s future earning prospects after graduating, presumably enhanced by what he or she has learned at college. Student borrowers who do not learn enough from their educations to get jobs that permit then to repay what they have borrowed are likely to default on their loans, leaving taxpayers liable for them.
The student financial aid system was created by Congress not as an integrated system but in pieces: to do a variety of things for a variety of reasons. One major objective was to help youngsters from low-income families gain access to higher education. In the light of our egalitarian ideals, limiting educational preparation for good careers to children fortunate enough to have educated, affluent parents seemed immoral. A second reason for promoting college access for youngsters from low-income families is that, as Jefferson argued, persons of extraordinary talent may be born in humble circumstances, and giving them educational opportunities might enable the American economy to be more productive. The knowledge explosion during the 20th century demonstrated that ideas are extremely important to the "creative destruction" that a market system needs in order for the economy to grow. Institutions of higher education are where many new ideas are developed by adults through research and transmitted to youngsters through teaching. Politicians are referring to this economic growth function when they speak euphorically about student grants and loans as "investments." Realistically speaking, however, only a few federal grant programs -- and none of the loan programs -- seek out top-notch students who will presumably contribute most to the productivity of the American economy; others aim only to make accessible the college experience for children of lower-income families. The existing system is an uneasy compromise between these two objectives.
It is an uneasy compromise partly because promoting access for youngsters from low-income families sometimes conflicts with the meritocratic ideal of educating youngsters most capable of making great intellectual contributions to knowledge. A better compromise could be made to realize these two objectives by targeting the grants and loans devised by the federal financial aid program to needy students studying diligently in order to prepare to go to college. Instead they were set up mainly as incentives simply to go to college, prepared or not. Congress apparently assumed that the colleges would screen admissions appropriately or perhaps Congress was afraid to appear elitist by imposing meritocratic conditions. Thus, federal aid to college students removed most financial barriers to attending college. Applications increased as high school students heard the message that college attendance led to well-paid, interesting careers, and was now affordable. Many colleges expanded facilities and lowered academic standards for admission; virtually any high school graduate could get into some college. Students might have had an incentive to work harder in high school if they had had to demonstrate academic achievement both to gain admission to college and to obtain financial aid to cover expenses while enrolled. The unintended consequence of failing to set this requirement is students graduating from college without good job prospects, a problem made worse in an economy where the unemployment rate has now risen above 10 percent. The predictable result is a growing rate of student loan defaults.
I am about to propose to change federal loan programs to college students but not to change federal educational grants to college students. Why the difference? Both suffer from the same drawback; they entitle mediocre as well as able students to obtain federal financial aid. A different approach is justifiable because federal loans have much worse consequences for both students and taxpayers than federal grants.
Consider grants first. As gifts from American taxpayers that students do not have to repay, it is true that grants are a complete loss to taxpayers if students do not make contributions to American society as a result of going to college. On the other hand, grants involve less than half as much money as loans in the aggregate as loans. And even individual cases of defaulted loans, accompanied as they are by interest and penalties, can be very large burdens both to American taxpayers and to individual student borrowers. In a November 2009 case decided by a panel of five New York State judges who ruled against admitting a student borrower to the New York bar, the panel said, “His application demonstrates a course of action amounting to neglect of financial responsibilities with respect to the student loans he has accumulated since 1983.” The student owed nearly half a million dollars. This admittedly unusual case shows the advantage to both students and taxpayers of grants over loans. Because there are strict limits to the annual grants that students can receive from the Department of Education in any academic year, students cannot attend college whose costs are way beyond their means.
With the help of Pell and other grants, students can afford a community college even if they cannot get loans rather than an expensive private college, especially if they live at home and commute. Students who start at community colleges and are successful academically can transfer to four-year colleges for their junior and senior years. In other words, student grants ignore academic merit even though everyone knows that students who have not done well in high school are unlikely to do better in college. These grants are an expression of American society’s willingness to make higher education available even to students who are poor risks. Giving Pell Grants is a societal bet -- though a long shot -- that mediocre students are late bloomers and can do better scholastically in the future, not that mediocrity is acceptable in itself.
This bet is riskier for loans, and consequently I recommend that loans be treated differently. Congress and the President should start to require the Department of Education to make student loans contingent on the best available evidence of the student’s prospects for repaying them, such as good job prospects based on high school and college grades, curriculum in which they enrolled, and their credit ratings. Defaults would still occur. Predicting the earning potential of college students is chancy. However, many young people would almost certainly be saved from financial ruin, and American taxpayers would almost certainly not have to bail out as many subprime student loans.
As theologians have said, we mean well and do ill and justify our ill-doing by our well-meaning. The unintended consequences of good intentions apply to our system of financial aid to American college students, as it did to our providing mortgage money to borrowers who could by no stretch of the imagination have kept up payments on their mortgages.
To sum up: Federal grants give mediocre students a chance to become late bloomers. Loans, however, are expected to be repaid, and mediocre high school students with bad credit ratings are likely to default on their loans, causing serious financial problems for themselves and financial complications for the American economy. Targeting loans to students with good prospects for repaying them is more prudent financially and makes more sense educationally. Some illiterate high school graduates have already sued their high schools for educational malpractice; disappointed college graduates may follow suit. Some diplomas are "tickets to nowhere."