President Lyndon Johnson signed the Higher Education Act (HEA) on November 8, 1965. The ceremony occurred before a packed house at his alma mater, Southwest Texas State College (now Texas State University-San Marcos). With his wife, Lady Bird, by his side, and surrounded by faculty, students, and administrators, Johnson gave prefatory remarks that were solemn yet optimistic: "The president's signature upon this legislation passed by this Congress will swing open a new door for the young people of America. For them, and for this entire land of ours, it is the most important door that will ever open — the door to education."
The $3 billion act marked the culmination of three decades of federal support for research funding and student aid that stretched across the New Deal, World War II, and the Cold War. One title provided aid for land grant urban extension programs; two titles offered assistance for construction projects; another title created the Teachers Corps; and another lent support to historically black colleges. But it was the student assistance title (Title IV) and its trio of aid options — work study, loans, and grants — that revolutionized college-going in this country, helping tens of millions of Americans go to college. It was the key to opening Johnson’s "door to education."
This year the act is again up for reauthorization, and for the first time in recent memory there exists genuine concern that the door the act opened is starting to shut. The "cost crisis" in higher education, now more than four decades in the making, has finally come home to roost. Since the economic crisis hit five years ago, state appropriations have plummeted and tuition has climbed. Spiraling dropout rates and student debt combined with reports of "limited learning" in college and high unemployment after have upped the anxiety level. Recent polls indicate that the American people are worried about paying for college and unsure whether it’s still a worthwhile investment, even though all the evidence indicates that earning a degree today matters more than ever.
In last month’s State of the Union Address, President Obama said he intended to "ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid." With an agenda already loaded down by sequestration, gun control and immigration reform, this will be very hard to do. But let’s assume that the act is overhauled and changes are made to the current financial aid system. It’s worth speculating what this new regulatory regime might look like. That it might end up bearing a family resemblance to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the decade-old K-12 accountability model built on Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), should give pause to those of us who care about higher education.
The fundamentals of NCLB are well-known. In exchange for federal Title I funding, the states must annually test students in math and reading in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and all students must be "proficient" in these subjects by 2014, unless your state received a waiver from the Department of Education. Schools that fail to make adequate "annual yearly progress" face increasingly severe sanctions: staff can be fired and a new curriculum installed, and if improvements aren’t made, failing schools can be restructured or even closed. While the results of NCLB have been mixed — gains in one place offset by losses in another — there is no doubt that regulation of this sort would harm American higher education. The strength of the U.S. system lies in the autonomy and freedom it affords and in the wide range of institutional and pricing options that it provides. This is rarely acknowledged. The media home in on what are actually outlier institutions, like Harvard University or the University of California at Berkeley, cite anecdotal evidence, then generalize across the whole sector, as if all institutions are the same and all students have identical educational goals.
Most students don't go to residential colleges or have endless free time. Most students aren’t 18 to 21 years of age and most students don’t graduate in four years. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Most students in this country go to a broad access four-year public institution or a two-year community college. Most students commute to class and work part time. And 40 percent of students are from low-income households.
All of which is to say that if new measures are passed to hold "colleges accountable for cost, value, and quality," as the White House has since described it, they will not affect all students or institutions the same. At wealthy colleges that attract exceptionally well-prepared students it will be business as usual no matter what happens. Not so at broad access institutions. Just as the burden of NCLB has been borne most by poor students and districts, similarly styled higher education reform will mean even more obstacles for "those who aspire to the middle class" — poor, racial and ethnic minorities, and first-generation students whose college options are already limited.
The president’s reluctance to address the link between poverty and education is notable, since the ESEA and the HEA were the main fronts of Johnson’s "unconditional war on poverty." The Educational Opportunity Grant, forerunner of the Pell Grant, was the HEA’s silver bullet, targeting students of "exceptional financial need" to help them earn a college diploma. Passed the year after the Civil Rights Act barred discrimination by any institution that received public funds, the HEA fueled the enrollment of African Americans and other underserved populations. Roughly 160,000 African Americans were in college in 1960, the majority of them at a historically black college or university (HBCU); by 1975 more than a million African Americans were in school, most of them outside the HBCU network.
In retrospect, the late 1970s was the golden age of college access, when the portable Pell Grant actually covered half the cost of a college education, as it was intended to do, and African Americans and other minority groups reaped the benefits of equal opportunity. It didn’t last. By the mid-1980s, loans eclipsed grants as the government’s preferred aid instrument, supplemented later by tax credits, tax-deferred 529 college saving plans, and state and institutional merit aid programs that have disproportionately benefited middle- and upper-income families. All the while the purchasing power of the Pell Grant has withered and the education gap has grown, impoverishing us all.
This brings us to our current moment and the various NCLB-inspired plans to tie aid to cost, value, and quality — that is, to outcomes and accountability rather than access and opportunity. This shift in priorities will not only hurt poor students but the entire higher education system. Colleges will be less willing to take chances on students that can’t pay full freight or look like they won’t graduate on time, leading to greater economic stratification and the end of student diversity as we’ve known it. Professors will feel even more pressure to pass students along regardless of the work they do, thus making rampant grade inflation worse. Administrators will be apt to massage student data to improve their institutional outcomes and rankings. And parents will demand that their students pursue pre-professional degrees with the strongest employment prospects, further marginalizing the liberal arts and other "blue sky" fields that offer less immediate "bang for the buck," turning them into wealthy majors for those who can afford idle cogitation. Meanwhile, ever greater numbers of poor students will cluster around the least desirable yet most expensive diploma mills, resulting in even more young people being left behind.
Are these doomsday scenarios far-fetched? Not really. Some of these things are already happening, now. But we’re not going to solve these issues by following policy makers and self-anointed reformers who want an aid model based on outcomes rather than opportunity. Simply put, higher education is setting itself up for failure by making promises it will not be able to keep. Does anyone really believe that we can create a system where every student who enters college graduates four years later with a degree, debt-free? Or that we can have classrooms where all students learn the same amount and in the same way? Or that every college graduate will land the job of her dreams? Higher education has never, ever done that. Not in the 19th century or in the 20th. And it never will.
Rather than creating more problems, we should mine the past for approaches that we know will keep "the door to education" open. The Pell Grant should be expanded and restored to its full purchasing power. To pay for it, regressive education tax credits favoring high earners should be abandoned and along with it financial aid to for-profit education providers, where the dropout, debt and default rates are highest and always have been. Colleges should be required to provide applicants with easy access to real pricing information to help with the choice process. And the income-based loan repayment program should be streamlined and a national service program created to put college graduates to work. After all, we don’t just need doctors, lawyers, engineers, and scientists; we also need teachers, artists, historians, and community organizers.
The challenge of our lifetime remains the problem of poverty. But to meet that challenge requires acknowledging that it exists. Lyndon Johnson knew that a truly great society was not possible "until every young mind is set free to scan the farthest reaches of thought and imagination." This remains as true today as it was then, and so too does Johnson’s fair warning: “We are still far from that goal.”
Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971, has doubled its enrollment in the last six years -- twice -- to become the largest private university in the country, The Washington Post reported. Much of the growth has been online. Total enrollment at Liberty is now 74,000, with 62,000 enrolled online. (The 74,000 figure is more than 30,000 more than the enrollments at other large private nonprofit institutions, such as New York University, the University of Southern California and Brigham Young University.) A 2010 article in Inside Higher Ed explored Liberty's online strategy.
The new president of the College Board, David Coleman, has written a letter to College Board members proposing to redesign the SAT. He wants to fix it so the test will "focus on the core knowledge and skills that … are most important to prepare students for the rigors of college." The shift may seem unremarkable but it represents a paradigm revolution in relation to the original test. The old SAT, introduced in 1926, was supposed to be an IQ test, measuring innate ability, not hard-earned subject-specific knowledge of anything. For eugenicists, the IQ argument was a winner; for private colleges, it gave them bragging rights for selecting students with a nationally normed device that coincidentally had a powerful linear relation with family income. Administrative complacency, faculty ignorance, and business office economics have kept the test in play. Why fiddle with a winner?
Between 1926 and today, the test was "redesigned" only once, in 2005. When the University of California threatened to dump the old SAT because it was statistically weak and socially biased, the College Board kept them hanging on by promising a better test – one that would be predictively more powerful and without the social disparities of the old test.
Instead, the 2005 SAT has been a failure on all counts. The new SAT dropped the dripping-with-social-bias verbal analogies and added an easily coached writing section. It took more time, was more expensive, predicted even less well than the old one, and managed to magnify social disparities. Racial, gender, and socioeconomic status test score gaps widened, instead of narrowing. Nonetheless, the College Board proclaimed the new SAT a success; everything was supposedly rocket-science perfect, until Coleman’s letter last week.
But why does the SAT need fixing if it is already, as Coleman says, “the best standardized measure of college and career readiness currently available”? The administrators of the ACT would dissent and slightly more of America’s high school seniors now agree with them. Clearly, part of the reason the SAT needs a remake is in response to a decline in market share. But, paradoxically, another source of pressure on the test comes from new developments inside its true archrival, America’s high schools.
The institution that has done the most to uphold academic standards for generations of America’s college-going youth has not been the College Board; it has been the American high school. Coleman’s formulation on the SAT being "the best standardized measure" is a misleading half-truth; the best statistical predictor of college performance is, and always has been, high school grades in college preparatory courses. It is a myth that America’s high schools are so unreliable (but, of course, not our colleges) that their grades are inflated and meaningless measures of academic achievement.
Even the College Board stipulates in its technical literature that high school grade-point average is the variable that holds the highest statistical correlation with first year grades and with cumulative grades. And high school G.P.A. is the best predictor of who will finish a college degree. High school G.P.A. alone performs better than test scores alone, whether one uses the SAT or the ACT; when combined with high school G.P.A., test scores increase our statistical power by one percentage point, as found at DePaul University, using the ACT, or at the University of Georgia, using the SAT. For me, a variable that raises one’s adjusted r-square in a statistical model by one point contributes diddly to our predictive powers. And what it contributes that isn’t diddly is the transmission of social inequality. There is no correlation between high school G.P.A. and family income; the same cannot be said for the SAT/ACT.
America’s high schools, in reaction to No Child Left Behind and the Obama Administration’s push for transparency and accountability, have given birth to a "common core" standards movement in math and English that has been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. Coleman is intimately familiar with the common core, as one of its architects, and my hat is off to him for that. But one of the consequences of getting a more nationally uniform curriculum is that high school grades will end up predicting even more powerfully than before how well one will do in college, and aptitude tests will be left further behind. America’s schools are where our youths learn the "knowledge and skills" needed for college level work; test-prep for a Saturday morning’s experience filling in the blanks cannot ever do that job. As America’s schools become more uniform and transparent, the fears of unreliability that the test industry preys upon will dissipate.
Another reason the SAT is on the drawing board again is the success of the test-optional movement in higher education. Pioneered by Bates College, and championed by many others, including my own Wake Forest University, more than one-third of America’s colleges do not require the SAT or ACT of an applicant. It is a myth that we need the SAT/ACT to select youths who are prepared to make the most of an opportunity to get a college degree — just as it is a myth that we have perfected a statistical science for doing college admissions. According to the College Board, our statistical models capture about 22 percent of the variance in college grades; the University of Georgia, where the SAT contributed one point, managed to get a model that explained 31 percent of the differences in undergraduates’ first year grades.
Most of what matters to undergraduate performance, 70 to 80 percent of what’s going on, isn’t captured by our best statistical modeling. Admissions remains more art than science, and colleges who look at the whole applicant in search of the best fit between individual and campus do a valuable service. Test-optional colleges have to look beyond the numbers. The ranks of test-optional colleges have grown in the last four years. A tipping point will come when everyone will rush to jump on board, and the admission by the College Board that its 2005 version of the test was a failure brings that day closer to us.
Many admissions officers, not to mention college presidents, have for years complained that prospective students focus too much on "sticker price" (stated prices of a college) rather than the actual cost to students and families (which may be considerably lower than sticker price, once aid is factored in). A new survey by the Art & Science Group and the College Board of SAT test-takers finds that the frustration is likely to remain. More than half (54 percent) of students reported that they judge a college's cost by sticker price without considering financial aid. And the survey was conducted in last 2012, after much publicity over the availability of "net price calculators," which allow those who share basic financial information to find out how much aid they would receive at a given college.
It's fashionable among some governors and pundits to suggest that the only way for students to get ahead economically these days is to embrace the most utilitarian of majors. So the results of an analysis by Bloomberg Businessweekmay be of interest. The magazine wanted to see which undergraduate colleges produced the students with the highest GMAT scores at the top 114 M.B.A. programs. The college whose graduates scored highest and ended up in the leading business schools is an institution where you can major in ancient history, film studies or anthropology, but not business. Swarthmore College topped the list. To be fair, those at some of the other institutions on the top 10 could have majored in business or related fields. Also of potential interest: 6 of the top 10 were colleges outside the United States. They include three in India, one in Canada, one in China and one in Britain.
It's a Wednesday morning in October, and as I stand at the airport gate I hear the dreaded news over the loudspeaker: "Your flight has been canceled." Only in my case, I don't understand the words, because I'm standing in a terminal in Beijing airport trying to get to Hangzhou. The news comes out in muffled Mandarin, which might as well be Martian to me. But a sympathetic British gentleman gives me the translation, and I trudge back to the ticket office to figure out Plan B.
I'm in China for the same reason that many other North American college officials have visited in recent years: to tap into the growing pool of millions of Chinese students looking for a college degree in the United States.
The number of foreign students in the U.S. continues to rise, and China, of course, represents a major source of the trend. In 2010-11, overall enrollment of Chinese students increased by 23 percent over the previous year. Not just large public universities or the prominent private universities, but private Christian colleges such as my own university, Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, are seeking to get in the game. One of our peer institutions in the Midwest, Cedarville University, recently attracted attention when it opened up a recruiting office in Beijing.
Much of the motivation to attract international students stems from our mission. Just about every Christian college includes a commitment to globalization somewhere in its mission statement and strategic plan. As the locus of world Christianity continues to shift to the developing world, Christian colleges in the U.S. are recognizing that their future depends on ensuring that their own student body better reflects the diversity of the global church rather than the graduating class of a suburban Indianapolis high school. Some have been doing this for a while; others, like Cornerstone, are seeking to make up for lost time. Tucked firmly in the middle-class Dutch enclave of West Michigan, and with an international student population hovering around 2 percent, we clearly have room for improvement.
Of course, it's not simply about a commitment to globalization. As universities plod their way through the Great Recession and maintain enrollment by raising discount rates, foreign countries represent a potential source for attracting what my CFO loves: "full-pay" students, or at least fuller-pay than the average American student. So as both China's economy and its Christian churches expand, private colleges in the U.S. are increasingly eyeing the Far East as a recruiting region. This is one of those all-too-rare occasions where principle and pragmatism actually play on the same team.
So like many others, I find myself in Beijing. But like the guy at the fishing tournament buzzing off in his bass boat to a secret cove to land the winning catch, I'm heading 500 miles south to Hangzhou, a "medium-sized" city of over 6,000,000 that is home to several major universities and one of the largest evangelical churches in China. A contact of mine, a West Michigan native who teaches English at Hangzhou Normal University, has invited me for a visit and has lined up meetings with professors, pastors, students, and academic administrators. Unfortunately, the canceled flight scrambles my schedule and I don't arrive until midafternoon.
As a typical North American, I'm hoping to go straight to a conference room and get down to business. But this is China, where such things are eased into gently. So I find myself standing in the middle of the track and field stadium of Hangzhou Normal University observing "sports day" on campus. This is essentially a large intramural athletic event, accompanied by marching music seemingly from the days of Chairman Mao, which sparks passionate cheering from the 10,000 or so students. I get there just in time to see my six-foot-tall American host stick out like a sore thumb as the only white person running the 5,000 kilometer race. Unfortunately, his size makes it difficult to hide when he, along with several others, is lapped by the leaders.
This clearly isn't Beijing, and as I walk around the event and am introduced to college students, it seems that my hosts and I are the only Americans in the vicinity. Perhaps I've found an untapped cove after all. My optimism grows when I visit with Reverend Paul, a pastor at Chong Yi church, a thriving mega-church whose imposing cathedral is capped with a 20-foot-high gold cross that is visible from miles away (so much for my notion of the underground church in China). Reverend Paul graduated from a seminary in China, but he seems unfamiliar with the notion of Christian-based undergraduate education. Hence we discuss the possibility of my returning in the future to talk to parents and young people about higher education in U.S. Though Chinese students value higher education primarily for economic reasons, surely Chinese Christians would appreciate a university that develops the soul as well as the mind.
Despite the positive signs, however, it seems that recruiting in China may be more complicated than I thought. In the evening, I have dinner with some local businessmen and the dean of the School of Health Management at Hangzhou Normal. When I distribute literature about Cornerstone, the dean asks, "What's your ranking?" A bit taken aback, I ask which sort of ranking he's referring to. It becomes clear that he has the U.S. News & World Report rankings in mind, which are, for him, the basic source of information about the quality of a university in America. I embark on a rambling discourse about how there are a variety of different rankings out there, that a university's ranking depends largely on the category to which it is assigned, and that as a teaching-centered university we focus more on student engagement and assessments such as the National Survey of Student Engagement. Such remarks seem to make little impression on him.
In fact, the Chinese, I discover, place tremendous weight on college rankings. In Hangzhou, it’s a badge of honor that one of their universities, Zhejiang University, is one of the top-ranked universities in the country. When I'm introduced to professors, I learn not only from what university they received their degree, but how high that university is ranked. Even high schools, I discover, are prioritized by their ranking. As we drive around the city and the local high schools are pointed out to me, they are mentioned along with their ranking among the other universities in the city, as in, "That's number 2" or "That's number 13."
From a first impression, at least, it seems that education in China is beset by the sort of self-reinforcing, "one size fits all" ranking system that has been decried in books such as Academically Adrift and The Innovative University. When I inquire about the basis on which the city's high schools are ranked, my hosts reply, "by how many of their graduates get into the top-ranked universities." As to what criteria determine a top-ranked university, I was given two basic factors — the number of research papers that professors publish and the amount of research grants the faculty bring in.
When I describe different measures of academic quality based on effective teaching in the liberal arts, faculty-student mentoring, challenging students to evaluate and perhaps change their beliefs, and nurturing growth in character as well as intellect, they seem to be new concepts to them. But they’re notions that, I hope, may gain some traction in China in the future.
Later in the evening, as a dean and I walk among the chestnut trees along Hangzhou's West Lake, he shares his thoughts on the future of higher education in China. As much of China has been emerging from poverty and underdevelopment, he observes, university education has been perceived solely in utilitarian terms as a ticket to economic success. As more Chinese become affluent, however, they are finding that there is more to life than economic success -- and thus that perhaps college is not just about making money but about making one a different kind of person.
So perhaps there's a niche in China that universities such as mine can fill. If the Chinese are simply looking for a degree from the U.S. as a path to a good job, then it's difficult to see how we can compete with our larger neighbors down the road in Ann Arbor and East Lansing. But if it's about becoming a different kind of person, then we're playing on our home turf.
A Cornerstone professor who teaches creativity tells me that the first step in the innovative process is not problem-solving but problem-finding. My visit to China may not have given us the key to internationalizing our campus, but it may help us start by defining the problem: Before we can talk to the Chinese about the value of Cornerstone University, we may have to convince them of the value of a liberal arts education in the first place.
Rick Ostrander is provost of Cornerstone University.
Grinnell won't consider applicants' ability to pay, at least for two years. But college will raise loan limits and try to attract more wealthy students. Is this the future model for elite private higher ed?
Southern Methodist University and Texas Christian University on Friday announced that both are adding an "early decision" option to their admissions programs. Both institutions already have "early action" in which applications are evaluated early in the process. In early decision, applicants make a pledge to enroll if accepted. Both universities noted that early decision -- popular at colleges in the Northeast and the West -- is not common in Texas. Among private colleges in the state, only Rice and Trinity Universities had the options in place prior to Friday's announcement.