For the 11th time since World War II, boom has turned to bust in our economy. Recession brings change in both the public and private sectors, as industries and government are forced to rethink how and to whom they deliver products and services. The current recession will be no exception.
Higher education’s response to economic downturns, however, has changed little. States and their colleges and universities have used the same strategy in every recession of the past generation, doing less of the same -- reducing access, cutting programs and services -- and charging students and their families more. During each of the last three recessions, average tuition and fees at public colleges and universities have climbed nearly 25 percent, and enrollment has fallen in two of these recessions.
Choosing retrenchment over reform has helped to make college more expensive and less accessible and affordable. Since the last recession of 2001, the U.S. has fallen to tenth in the percentage of young adults with a college degree, the share of income needed for the poorest family to pay public college expenses after financial aid has jumped from 39 percent to 55 percent, and student loan borrowing has nearly doubled.
The world surrounding higher education has changed significantly since the last recession, in ways that make a repeat of past behavior riskier than before.
Eight years ago, the knowledge economy was still developing, and the Baby Boomers -- our best-educated generation -- were still in the prime of their working lives. Today, half of the fastest-growing jobs require education beyond high school, and the first of the Baby Boomers will reach retirement age in just two years. This means that millions of college-educated workers will be needed to fill new and existing jobs, and our current completion rates won’t meet that need.
Eight years ago, two-thirds of Americans believed that success in the work force didn’t require a college degree and a majority thought that qualified students could get to and through college. Today, more than half of Americans say that a college education is essential, and two-thirds say that eligible students are being shut out of college. The public’s demand for access to higher education and their confidence in colleges’ and universities’ ability to deliver it are on a collision course.
Despite these warning signs, we’re already seeing history repeat itself. Lawmakers in Florida are moving to allow every public university to increase tuition by as much as 15 percent per year despite widespread public opposition. Three of the nation’s largest public university systems -- the University of California, California State University, and Arizona State University -- are proceeding with plans to cap or cut enrollment amid rapid growth in their states’ college-going populations.
How do we break this cycle and redefine higher education’s response to financial crisis? It will require strong leadership at the state, system, and campus levels, focusing on priorities, productivity, and innovation.
Setting priorities involves hard choices. We believe that in the current financial crisis, ensuring accessible and affordable undergraduate education must be the highest priority. States should not cut higher education disproportionately compared to other state services and rely on students to make up the difference through tuition hikes. Colleges and universities should share resources to ensure that every eligible student can enroll, and redirect resources from high cost, low need graduate and research programs to undergraduate instruction. Both should make financial need the top priority for their student aid funds.
We see encouraging signs on this front. Governors in Maryland, Michigan, and Missouri have proposed shielding higher education from cuts in exchange for tuition freezes. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Ed Rendell has proposed a bold effort to increase need-based aid for students attending community and state colleges.
Gauging and increasing productivity is also a must. State, system, and campus leaders need to look at how money is being spent and the results of that spending, rather than simply focusing on revenues. They must also set clear expectations for institutions to regularly review these data and use them to reform or eliminate high cost, low performing programs and reinvest the savings in areas consistent with state needs and priorities.
There are positive developments in this area as well. The National Association of System Heads is working with public university systems in nearly 20 states to better measure and manage costs as part of a broader push to improve participation and completion rates for underrepresented students. One of the participating systems -- Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning -- has changed its budget development process to include a focus on institutional spending, not just campus wish lists.
The third -- and perhaps most important -- element is innovation. Our colleges and universities are renowned for the innovations that they bring to other fields, but they focus relatively little on their own reinvention. Many promising initiatives, including dual high school/college enrollment and course redesign, operate on marginal dollars in good times and are the first to be cut when budgets tighten.
Here again, some states are showing leadership. Policy makers in Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas are exploring new funding models that would include real incentives for retaining and graduating students, not just enrolling them.
Recessions are inevitable, but our responses to them are not. Policy makers and higher education leaders who once again decide to do less of the same and charge more for it will tell us that they had no other choice. But we know that just isn’t true.
Patrick M. Callan is president of the non-profit, non-partisan National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Robert H. Atwell is president emeritus of the American Council on Education, serves on the National Center’s board of directors, and chairs the board of directors of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity, and Accountability.