Election 2016

Ben Carson to advise Trump campaign on education

Donald Trump says Ben Carson will play a "big role" advising the Trump campaign on education. So what has the retired neurosurgeon said about higher education?

What Donald Trump's ascendance says about the future of higher education (essay)

The rise of Donald Trump as the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party is yielding strong reactions among college graduates: fear, befuddlement, calls seeking refuge after November with Canadian friends and relatives, and some amount of self-satisfaction that college graduates aren’t buying what Trump is selling.

In poll after poll, support for Trump from those without a bachelor’s degree is up to 20 points higher than from Americans with them, leading to Trump’s memorable line following his win in the Nevada caucuses: “I love the poorly educated.”

Across the pond in the United Kingdom, Brits are seeing similar reactions to the rise of “Brexit” forces, urging the U.K. to exit the European Union. Similarly, school leavers, as they’re called in the U.K., support Brexit at a rate about 20 percentage points higher than university graduates. According to The Economist, “the more qualifications someone has, the more pro-European he or she is likely to be.”

The active hypothesis among educated elites is that our reactions to the raw emotional appeal of Trump and Brexit demonstrate the value of a college degree. Degrees, the argument goes, produce the requisite critical thinking, discerning judgment and a long-term focus so that frustration and anger don’t lead inexorably to radical and impractical options like Trump and Brexit.

Of course, an alternative hypothesis is that this is a result of self-selection: people who already have the stick-to-it-iveness to earn 120 credits over four-plus years while navigating a level of bureaucracy that, at many schools, could inspire the next Kafka, by definition have a certain level of critical thinking, discerning judgment and long-term focus. Students who are able to earn a degree without throwing up their hands and walking away are less likely to vote to walk away from the E.U., or from civilized politics.

But while fear, befuddlement and calls to Canada are legitimate reactions to Trumpism, self-satisfaction is not. In fact, there’s good reason for dissatisfaction at our system of higher education, because the failures of our colleges and universities are contributing to the anger and frustration propelling it.

Trump and Brexit voters are angry and insecure, in part, because the income premium for bachelor’s degrees over those with some college, high school graduates and high school dropouts is at its highest point ever.

Over the past generation, a bachelor’s degree has become the default currency of the labor market. Virtually all professions now utilize the bachelor’s degree as a screening mechanism, whether or not jobs require four years of college. Dental hygienists, police officers, cargo agents, claims adjusters, health information technicians, fashion designers, desktop publishers and hundreds of other careers are now virtually closed to individuals without a bachelor’s degree.

And although the job market tells them they must complete, for most low-income students for whom life is most likely to “get in the way,” that's an unrealistic goal; life rarely goes perfectly for a period of one year, let alone four-plus years. Approximately 46 percent of students who begin bachelor’s degree programs fail to complete a degree, and the numbers are even more dismal for students from the lowest income quartile.

While nearly 80 percent of children of top-quartile families earn a bachelor’s degree by the age of 24, the number for bottom quartile families is 9 percent. Working-class students are caught between the Scylla of employer expectations and the Charybdis of completion reality.

So one overlooked source of the rise of Trumpism can be laid at the feet of elites and employers who have encouraged and accepted the cult of the bachelor’s degree. Through well-intentioned but misguided educational paternalism (having had the benefit of a four-year college education, it must be good for everyone), elites have established a social and economic expectation that a bachelor’s degree from a college or university is required for modern economic success. Prior to exploiting this politically, Trump did so commercially, dressing up his sham real estate seminars as “Trump University.”

So we should expect frustration and anger when the expectation of a degree from a real university proves unrealistic. And that sense that white working-class voters have that elites are looking down at them? It comes in no small measure from the fact that elites aren’t hiring them because they don’t have bachelor’s degrees.

Recognizing this, countries like Singapore have begun actively discouraging families from enrolling their children in bachelor’s degree programs. Singapore isn’t interested in denying students the benefits of a good general or liberal education. It simply doesn’t agree that the expensive four-year “bundle” we now lazily accept as the minimum qualification for a professional career is always the right one. Alternative pathways are shorter, less expensive and specific to a profession -- including training on measurable hard skills that employers expect to see.

While most of the sources of Trumpism are relatively intractable, this wound is partially self-inflicted. Elites have propagated the cult of the bachelor’s degree, and it has now come back to bite them in the form of Donald J. Trump. Similarly, if the U.K. votes for Brexit in June, the British elite will have some soul searching to do.

The rise of Trump and of Brexit forces shouldn’t make Americans and Brits smug about our systems of higher education. Quite the opposite. In the long run, keeping our politics civilized and rational will require the active participation of colleges, universities and employers to unbundle the bachelor’s degree and establish a more realistic world of differentiated and meaningful shorter and lower-cost credentials.

Ryan Craig is managing director at University Ventures, a fund focused on innovation from within higher education.

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Jeb Bush unveils higher education plan with focus on federal loan overhaul


The Republican presidential hopeful wants to gut the federal student loan programs -- and replace them with a federal income-based financing system.

In 'free' college plans, some Democrats push student work requirements


As Democrats pitch various "free" college plans to voters this year, some also encourage or require that students work in exchange for those new benefits.

Proposals to make public college free are regressive, not progressive (essay)

On the presidential campaign trail, we’re seeing one so-called progressive candidate after another call for the federal government to enact major new spending programs to hold down tuition at public universities. Here’s the thing -- the results would be regressive: the prime beneficiaries of these proposals will be wealthier students who currently do not receive means-tested federal dollars.

Let me confess: I have spent the last 24 years of my life representing private colleges and universities in the Pennsylvania General Assembly and to the Pennsylvania congressional delegation. Because of that I know that the private four-year colleges and universities in Pennsylvania enroll a similar proportion of Pell Grant recipients as are enrolled at our state’s public universities, 24 percent versus 30 percent. I also know that with a few exceptions the average family income of students attending our name-brand public universities exceeds or approximates that of our private college and university students.

I get the politics of the candidates’ proposals. I understand that families are worried about paying for college. I understand that some students assume too much debt (though the average debt assumed for an undergraduate degree is a very worthwhile investment that returns far more value than a comparable loan for a new car). I understand that promising people they can attend a public university debt free is a popular political statement intended to help win an election. But let’s at least call this what it is: a cynical political proposal that is regressive in its use of government dollars to benefit upper-middle- and upper-income families.

I would like to believe that these “progressive” candidates are poorly informed about the realities of higher education finance and don’t realize that public colleges and universities for decades have been using their state-subsidized price advantage, their athletic programs and their investment in more amenities and “star” research faculty to become more selective and enroll higher and higher-income students. The correlation between income and test scores has been demonstrated repeatedly. In general, the more selective institutions become, the higher the family income of the students who attend.

Consequently, if you provide additional federal and state aid to a select group of public institutions and to the disadvantage of the private institutions with which they compete, then the government-favored institutions will ultimately become more popular, will have more students to choose from and will select the highest performers. From an institutional perspective, you are simply using your place in the marketplace to strengthen the quality of your institution by recruiting better students and making your faculty and alumni very happy. Perfectly reasonable approach for the institutions.

From a public policy perspective, however, this has many unfortunate consequences if your goal, as a country, is to increase access to quality higher education for low-income students or students who need extra preparation to make it through college.

First, those subsidies meant to make the public university more affordable will actually make it more difficult for lower-income and underrepresented students to gain admission, as they must compete with higher-income students (many of whom now attend private universities) seeking the generous government subsidy.

Second, these new federal and state government subsidies devoted to public universities will certainly result in the loss of students and tuition income at the vast majority of private colleges and universities. A relatively few private colleges and universities have enough wealth and national reputation to compete with an even larger government subsidy at the public universities. Many private colleges could be forced to close their doors if enrollment drops. Private institutions are performing a very important public service by educating hundreds of thousands of Pell Grant students each year -- 58,882 in Pennsylvania alone in 2012-13. If these institutions disappear, who is going to educate these low-income students? Not only will they struggle to get into some of the public universities, but many will struggle academically if they do get in, because the larger size and anonymity of public universities will make the learning environment less conducive for success.

Finally, all we have to do is to look at what happened the last time the federal government demanded that the states maintain their funding for the public universities to see how low-income students were hurt. As part of the stimulus package intended to shorten the 2007-8 recession, Congress required that states maintain funding to their public universities in order to receive federal stimulus dollars. As a result of this policy, several states -- including mine -- reduced their spending on need-based aid. Yes, upper-income students who didn’t receive need-based state grants received help through this increased government support to hold their tuition down. But the low-income students attending these same public universities saw their need-based grants cut and had to pay more for their college education.

These are regressive, not progressive policies.

In praising these “debt free” public university initiatives, one former Obama adviser spoke dismissively of vouchers for students, saying that the federal government needed to give money directly to public institutions. I believe that using institutional funding instead of vouchers to students (Pell Grants and state need-based aid programs) guarantees that taxpayer money will be wasted on those without need, while many with need will be left behind even further than they are today. Would a progressive even consider eliminating means-tested food stamps and replacing them with publicly subsidized grocery stores for all who want the government subsidy? Even worse, would they do this knowing that these grocery stores don’t have to allow all people to come in? In fact, that many of these grocery stores generally serve a population whose family income exceeds the national average?

Providing federal dollars to states to help subsidize low tuition at the public universities is a great idea if your ultimate goal is to pander to the public’s desire to have someone else pay for what is one of the most costly investments you can make in yourself or the members of your family.

However, it is also one of the most regressive economic stances you can take when put into practice, and we should stop pretending there is anything progressive about these proposals. Populist maybe, but not progressive.

Don Francis is president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania.

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Republican presidential candidates begin getting into the weeds

Jeb Bush and other candidates for the Republican presidential nomination begin to follow Senator Marco Rubio down the wonkier corridors of higher education policy.


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