Flagship publics

Public universities will take on more debt as states decrease spending on capital projects

With state lawmakers unwilling to fund capital projects at colleges and universities, public institutions increasingly turn to debt to finance construction and maintenance.

Delayed state payments cause headaches for Illinois public universities

For three years, Illinois has delayed payments to public colleges, presenting a different sort of budgeting problem for administrators.

Cornell and Technion's win in New York competition reflects desire to grow urban ties

Cornell's victory in New York City competition, and its intense desire to win, show the importance of urban ties for the future of research universities.

Essay on small percentage of public universities that are affordable for low-income students

When applying to colleges, students are commonly told to include a “safety school” to ensure they are accepted to at least one institution. For low-income students, such as those who receive advising from college access programs like members of the National College Access Network, they also need a different type of a safety school: a financial one to which they are not only accepted but also are reasonably sure they can afford.

As parents’ concerns about college costs surpass even their worries about having enough money for retirement, whether an affordable college option exists -- particularly for low-income students -- is a crucial question. To answer it, NCAN designed an affordability measure to see whether a low-income student can reasonably expect to successfully piece together all of the possible sources for funding a four-year degree in today’s public higher education system.

Why, specifically, a four-year degree? Because it’s the surest path to the middle class for low-income students and students of color. And why examine public institutions in particular? Because they were founded to serve all students in their state. Their missions are based on ensuring access. At the very least, low-income students need a single affordable college option.

But unfortunately, only 25 percent of public, four-year residential institutions are affordable for the average first-time, full-time Pell Grant recipient who is working in a minimum-wage job. This percentage plummets to approximately 10 percent when examining public flagship institutions.

This measure of affordability is detailed in NCAN’s new white paper, “Shutting Low-Income Students Out of Public Four-Year Higher Education.” It weighs the cost of attendance at an institution -- plus $300 to cover emergency expenses -- against students’ average total grant aid from federal, state and institutional resources; the institution’s average federal loan amount; the average Pell Grant recipient’s expected family contribution; and an approximation of students’ earnings from part-time work while in school and full-time summer work. Combining all of these aid sources -- which requires an adept navigation of the financial aid system -- still does not allow students to afford 412 of the 551 (75 percent) residential public four-year institutions in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

This was not always the case, and NCAN members are seeing the impact of the shift in the field.

“When I started in this work in 2004, I could confidently say that if we did our jobs right and our students did their work as well, then paying for college wasn’t a barrier to their success,” Traci Kirtley, chief program officer at College Possible, told NCAN. “That’s no longer true today. Even if students do everything right, many in 2018 are finding that they still can’t afford to pursue a college degree.”

This is a significant equity issue for our country. It’s also a timely one, as policy makers question whether college is “for everyone” and promote shorter-term programs whose outcomes are typically less beneficial. High-income students are already more than four times more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree than are low-income students -- 60 percent versus 14 percent, respectively. Additionally, low-income students are almost twice as likely as their high-income peers to obtain a postsecondary certificate or associate degree.

Sub-baccalaureate degrees and credentials are valuable, but the concentration of low-income students in these programs is surely a sign that students do not have equitable choices when picking their career paths. As the definition of postsecondary education expands, it’s important that low-income students -- like their higher-income peers -- retain the option to choose their postsecondary and professional paths based on skills and interests, not finances alone.

This reality of college affordability should not be acceptable to either our federal or state policy makers. It should serve as a wake-up call that policies meant to improve our nation’s higher education system must address all pathways, thereby helping low-income students pursue a four-year degree should they desire one.

Solutions to college affordability must address multifaceted issues: the complexity of the system, affordability at the access point to all pathways -- especially the four-year degree -- and the debt burden of those who can afford to enroll in the first place. Policy makers and advocates must increase their focus on a cohesive plan to address college affordability. Without a holistic approach, the share of low-income students completing four-year degrees will remain inequitable as they continue to lack at least one viable, affordable college option.

Carrie Warick is director of policy and advocacy at the National College Access Network.

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Tuition freeze raises Purdue's profile -- at what cost?

Holding tuition flat since 2012-13 has raised the land-grant university’s profile and helped it grow, but it is fueling competition for resources by academic departments -- and Purdue is still working to enroll more students from Indiana.

The trials and triumphs of the University of Virginia (essay)

The University of Virginia has had a rough year. Actually, we’ve had a rough five years.

In the summer of 2012, members of the University Board of Visitors decided to dismiss President Teresa Sullivan. Reasons were vague. There was talk about how she had failed to be sufficiently “dynamic” in leading the university. She was scolded for failing to rush to the forefront of online education, which she was told by Helen Dragas, the rector of the Board of Visitors, was the next big thing. (It was not.)

The board got Sullivan to sign a letter of resignation and accept a settlement. The students and faculty and alumni of Virginia rallied, and after demonstrations and protests, the board buckled and reinstated Sullivan. One could think that was the end of UVA’s troubles, at least for a while.

Next came the disappearance and horrible murder of a second-year student, Hannah Graham. Graham was seen walking unsteadily and alone through our downtown mall. She got into a car with Jesse Matthew, who took her to a secluded spot and murdered her. Her body was found in a field not far from where I live.

Then came the Rolling Stone debacle in which a young woman, under the pseudonym Jackie, told a reporter from the magazine, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, that she had been gang-raped at a university frat house. There was then and is now no evidence that this occurred. But for a while, UVA was Rape University. In some quarters, it may still be -- retractions and corrections being far less often attended to in everyday American journalism than provocative untruths.

The school year was almost over when alcohol enforcement police elected to throw Martese Johnson, an African-American student, to the ground after he committed the high crime of trying to get into a local pub while under the age of 21. “I go to UVA, you fuckers. You fuckin’ racists,” Johnson reportedly said to the representatives of the law. It had no salutary effect.

After 2014-15, one might have thought that the university had absorbed its share of misfortunes and that the cosmos and the powers that direct it (should they exist) might back off. They did, for a while. Then came August 2017, when neo-fascists held a torchlight march through the university’s grounds. Striding in rows of twos and threes, they made their way through Mr. Jefferson’s grounds, chanting “Blood and soil,” “you will not replace us,” “Jews will not replace us” and other uplifting slogans. Anyone wondering what the early hours of Kristallnacht might have looked like could have found out by wandering across our grounds that evening.

The night ended with a small band of UVA students grouped around a statue of Jefferson, being taunted and, in a few cases, assaulted by the visiting neo-fascists. Then followed the aborted Unite the Right rally Saturday. There was a death; there were injuries. Next came President Trump’s injudicious comments about violence “on many sides.” Again, the university was in the news, dismally so. One commentator observed that Trump was in deep trouble that week: “There’s North Korea,” she said. “There’s Charlottesville.” It did not help that two of the neo-fascist organizers, Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer, were UVA graduates.

Did the University of Virginia have it coming? Was it something more than chance that the neo-fascists had chosen our grounds for their display? Our founder is notorious for having been a slaveholder. We are, we are told, an elitist school. Our students’ families are far too rich. We have not done enough for the city of Charlottesville. Our institution was built by slaves. We did not integrate racially for an ungodly long time. And we were slow enough to take in women students as well. In the days after the Unite the Right rally, indictments of the university rolled in.

Is there anything to be said for the University of Virginia? Is there any defense to be made?

I think there is and will try to offer a brief one. What follows are the observations of one person -- albeit someone who has been a professor at the university for nearly 35 years. Others will see matters differently. I speak only for myself.

Inspiration, Quality and Commitment

Our critics tell us that our students are “entitled.” They are awash in their sense of privilege. They must not know the same students I do. The most common word I hear students use about being at UVA is “lucky.” The second most is “fortunate.” The most common sentence goes this way: “I am lucky to be here.” This is, I believe, the pervasive attitude of our students. “Ever since I was six [or eight or 10] I’ve wanted to come to UVA, and I can’t believe that I’m here.” They are also grateful to their parents. I have heard many tributes to what mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers have sacrificed to send their child to school.

The students’ gratitude is sometimes based on finances. They are getting one of the world’s best educations for a reasonable price -- in-staters pay $16,000 a year in tuition and fees. If it is not the best educational deal in America, it is close.

But students are talking about more than money. They love this university. At Yale University, where I was a grad student, my undergrads respected and admired the institution, but they were in awe of it, too. They were intimidated. It felt like it belonged to someone else -- someone who lived 200 years ago.

Our students love UVA for many reasons, but a chief one is that they feel it is theirs. Tradition is everywhere here, but it is Jeffersonian tradition, which means that there is an injunction to make it new and to make it yours. This the students do. They govern themselves, they enforce their own code of honor, they participate in major decisions. As much probably as at any other institution, they influence the course of events.

The University of Virginia has the vast range of classes one associates with the largest universities -- you can study almost anything here. But we have the intimacy of connection between students and faculty that usually can only be found at small colleges. It is a great research institution and a great teaching institution. Granted, I wish our students read more and pursued their activities a little less; I wish they saw themselves more as aspiring thinkers than aspiring leaders; I wish they could dial their party culture back. But they are a pleasure to know and to teach.

Our grounds are an inspiration for learning. Jefferson’s ideas about the best form of education are inscribed in his design of the Lawn. Faculty members live in close proximity to students. That gives us the sense that we are all in this enterprise together and that personal contact between teachers and students is at the heart of the endeavor. The great expanse of the Lawn is a pastoral gesture. It encourages leisure and conversation. It suggests that learning is not only gleaned from books but also from exchange with others.

The Rotunda, the heart of the Lawn, is modeled after the Pantheon in Rome, and it was the library in the university’s first manifestation. Jefferson placed books where the statues of the Greek divinities are in the Pantheon. Rightly so: books were Jefferson’s gods, entities with the power to transform individuals and the world. The Rotunda looks back to the classical age, the pre-Christian world. It affirms an independent form of learning not based on subservience to the existing religious doctrines of early-19th-century America, but free. This was a revolutionary gesture. The university at its best looks back in order to look ahead.

We have a good faculty, too, though I hope I do not seem boastful in saying so. Professors care about their scholarly and scientific work -- and they’re good at it. They also care about teaching -- and they’re very good at that, too. You may find a few institutions where the faculty does more and better writing and research. But I think you’ll have a hard time finding any universities where the faculty teaches as well as ours does and does its own work as effectively and to as much legitimate recognition.

The scholarship and public writings of my colleagues are first-rate. They work hard, produce copiously and get considerable applause for their efforts. They have national and international reputations. I think that one quality holds our work together, at least in the humanities and social sciences: you can read it. Some of what we write is demanding, but there is rarely obfuscation or fancy dancing. People take the state university business seriously -- they write so that an interested citizen can understand what they say. We have a commitment to our disciplines -- but we have a commitment to being a public university, too.

The administration may have one of the most difficult tasks in the country. Our freedom to raise tuition has long been limited by the state Legislature, so the administration is compelled to raise vast sums to keep the university going and help it to develop. This they do with ongoing success. In the past few years, our president has had to struggle to raise money and fight off some of the most onerous challenges that any executive in American education has contended with. Difficulties arise from all sides. Our Board of Visitors is made up of political appointees, many of whom have no experience in the running of educational institutions. Needless to say, that does not stop them from having strong opinions as to how it should be done. The administration must also contend with a Legislature that contains its complement of those who are not always friendly to liberal education.

We are not a new university -- we were founded 200 years ago. As such, we are implanted in the history of the nation, and in particular our nation’s southern history. Our founder is the chief promulgator of the simple, profound truth that all men and women are created equal and have the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This truth has rung out across the world, and it has done immeasurable good. Every rebellion against tyranny that has come after ours is indebted to Thomas Jefferson. Repeatedly, he has helped people to liberate themselves. Has any individual thinker and statesman done more for the cause of freedom than he?

Obligations to the Past

Jefferson was also a holder of slaves and a believer in the intellectual superiority of white people over black. The great liberator was a slave driver. The apostle of freedom kept men and women in chains. Some of those chained were his own descendants. What are we to make of this? Jefferson is, to say the least, an enigmatic figure: the best book I have read about him is revealingly titled American Sphinx.

After the events of Aug. 11 and 12, the world, or rather, that part of the world that devotes itself to the moral instruction of others, has told us that we must face our racist past, purge ourselves of vestiges of white supremacy and otherwise cleanse our souls. I wish that the moralists would look to themselves and begin some of their hoped-for reform at home. As the rabbi says, “You see a mote in your neighbor’s eye but miss the log in your own.”

That does not mean that the issues the moralists raise are easily cast aside. Determining one’s obligations to the past is one of the most difficult spiritual and intellectual tasks known to us.

As a scholarly institution, one of our obligations is inarguable: we must get at the truth. We must keep studying Jefferson and his life and times and come up with a clear, accurate view of his massive contributions and his dismal flaws. We need to learn even more about his staggering faults, as well as his astonishing achievements.

The university should probably get to work on a collective statement about who we take Jefferson to be. In this statement, understanding should take radical precedence over judgment. I have for some time been an advocate of assembling a one-credit course -- online if need be, and taken by all students -- on the subject of the founder and the founding of our university. We all should know where we come from.

What then? Different people will have different views. I endorse focus on the present and the future. We should locate brilliant and hardworking poor students, particularly in the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County, and give them a chance to flourish at the university. If they are the descendants of the slaves who built the university, so much the better.

We are now building a monument to the enslaved laborers who helped to construct the university, which I applaud. But as someone committed to the present and the future, I would also like to see us invest resources in the members of our cleaning and grounds crews and our support staff, many of whom do not now really make a living wage. A significant moiety of them are probably descendants of the slaves being memorialized. Let’s offer them a chance to flourish here and now. Otherwise, 100 years down the line, right-thinking individuals will be building monuments to our cafeteria workers and grounds crew and impugning us for our blindness to their plight. We need to try to spread our light and truth in the present and not be overwhelmed with worry about our obligation to the deceased.

Yet I realize that the subject of our obligation to the past is one on which honorable people can differ. We have a second patron figure at UVA: Edgar Allan Poe. In Poe’s writing, the past always looms up ahead (and not too far ahead), waiting to devour the present. As soon as you see the crack down the middle of the House of Usher, you know that by story’s end the house will split apart. Ours is the university that offered hospitality to William Faulkner, who told us that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

These writers and the visions they offer are not to be dismissed lightly. I am not for burying the past -- we should bring it into the light of day. But I am not for being haunted to the point of possession by old crimes. How much import to give to the past, and to what measure the past will usurp the present if we refuse to give it its due -- these issues are not easily resolved. I’m not sure we need to roll ourselves into a penitential ball because the Ku Klux Klan gave us $1,000 close to 100 years ago. We need to do right, and right on racial issues in particular, now and in the future.

Americans thrive on disjunction. We leap away from the past. Where did the civil rights movement come from? How did the cultural revolution called the ’60s arise? Think about the women’s movement or the movement for gay liberation. Think about the sudden emergence of Barack Obama and his election as the first black president of the United States. Historians often presume to tell us the origins and genealogy of this or that striking phenomenon, but our best moments seem to me often to come with an inspired stroke. We don’t look back: we look at the present, see where it’s flawed, then jump forward to fresh possibilities. Only one major university in the nation was founded by a true revolutionary, and that is ours. His presence makes us capable of being revolutionary ourselves.

The University of Virginia embodies a dream. It’s the dream of not just adequate or good but great education offered at a fair price, sponsored by the public and open to all. We are a public university that strives to be on par with the best private institutions in the country. Our students and faculty understand that we have responsibilities not only to ourselves but also to the Commonwealth of Virginia and the nation. The students and professors and trustees at other public universities should be able to point to Virginia and tell their legislators and their electorate that they want something that’s as good or better.

Don’t the sons and daughters of all the states deserve a crack at the very best public education at a decent price? And shouldn’t private institutions look in our direction and toward Michigan and Berkeley and say, “There they educate people not to go out in pursuit of personal gain, but to serve the best interests of the state, the nation and world”? As a public university, guided by the best of Jefferson’s legacy, we cannot help but think in large terms. We’re not without flaws, to be sure. There’s much here that’s still to be done. But we carry the dream of great public education for all forward into the future. And that is something to celebrate and defend.

Mark Edmundson teaches English at the University of Virginia. His most recent books are Why Write? and Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals.

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Indiana University's 'grand challenge' on practical solutions to environmental change in the state

Indiana University’s new “grand challenge” takes a practical approach by seeking to connect university research on environmental change to the lives and work of people across the conservative state.

Reversing the decline of state support for public universities (essay)

The United States has seen a significant decline in state support for higher education in recent years. From 2000 to 2012, state support per full-time equivalent student declined from an average of $7,000 to $4,400 after inflation, a drop of almost 4 percent a year. Over the same period, federal support grew 2.5 percent annually after inflation, from $3,800 to $5,100 per full-time equivalent.

The contrast between state and federal investment in the specific period from 2008 to 2012, the first four years after the Great Recession, was even greater: state support declined at an annual rate of 7.8 percent, while federal support grew at an annual rate of 7.3 percent. And while three states (Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming) have increased support for public higher education over the past three years, the other 47 states have decreased it.

On a more granular level, one has seen budget collapses at the City University of New York and a budget impasse threatening all public universities in Illinois. One might ask why City University -- which not only offered high-quality tuition-free university education through 1976 but also produced 13 Nobel laureates from the classes of 1933 through 1963 -- does not enjoy greater public support, support it once had. One might ask why Illinois universities -- including the flagship University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Chicago State University and others -- do not enjoy greater public support, again support the system once had.

The Tragedy of the Commons

The decline in state support for public universities appears to be flip side of a classic economic conundrum: the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons describes overuse of a shared resource (for example, a fishing area) by individual users (fishermen). Since each fisherman can expect to harvest only a small fraction of future fish growth, the optimal strategy is to catch as many fish as possible, even though the collective result of all of those individual optimal strategies is to drive the fish population to extinction. W. F. Lloyd first described this “tragedy of the commons,” or the overexploitation of a shared resource, almost 200 years ago.

The tragedy of the commons is fundamentally a mismatch between the scale of the decision maker(s) and the scale of the resource. In the presence of this mismatch, and the absence of communication and agreement among users, each user’s optimal economic strategy in exploiting a shared resource (a fishery, or, more generally, the commons) is to overexploit the resource, potentially driving it to extinction.

A similar mismatch has emerged in support for United States public universities. Until now, public universities, like public schools, have been primarily funded locally: public schools through a combination of local and state support, and universities largely at the state level. Historically, most graduates stayed local, and most of the hiring was local. Thus, each individual participant (for example, a local business) in a local community received much of the benefit of their investment, motivating investment commensurate with the benefits of the university. State support of public universities matched the scale of users of these universities, and state investment in their public universities benefited the state population and businesses.

In contrast, if far fewer graduates stayed local, and much of hiring were significantly broader based (for example, national or global), an individual participant would logically choose to invest little or nothing in their local public universities. The logic parallels the classical tragedy of the commons, where individual users (herdsman or fisherman), acting independently, together overexploit a common resource because each has essentially no ownership of the resource. In this case, each participant underinvests because they receive only a small benefit from investing in the shared resource -- the scales of statewide investment and broader national usage do not match. The results are also similar: namely collapse of the common resource.

This reverse tragedy of the commons describes the present-day United States. Public universities have become national resources, not merely state resources, providing benefits both in the state and outside of it. The educated population is highly mobile, and businesses recruit and hire their best-educated employees on a national or global scale.

Thus, federal support for public universities has grown in recent years because the scale of federal decision making and investment matches the national scale of usage of public universities. But meanwhile, state support has fallen sharply because the scale of state decision making and investment does not match the national scale of the hiring and mobility of the well educated.

Reductions in state support not only harm the quality and affordability of public universities; they also trigger further reductions in support. Business can hire out of state, even outside the United States. Those seeking science, engineering and technology workers can use the H-1B visa program to access a global talent pool. Students who are able can choose to attend out-of-state or private universities.

To fill the gap in state support, public universities can pursue out-of-state students to increase revenue. But states like California have been publicly pressured to reduce out-of-state admissions in favor of in-state students. Another possibility -- raising tuition -- both reduces opportunities for students and makes state universities less competitive economically.

Meanwhile, those strategies don’t really address the collapse of support for public education -- and its negative consequences. (It’s worth noting, for example, that all 13 Nobel laureates at City University graduated between 1933 and 1963 -- none did during the disinvestment in the 1970s and later.) And they all further weaken the case for state taxpayer support, driving a downward spiral in state support for public universities.

User Communities on a National Scale

How can this spiral toward collapse of public universities be stopped? Fisheries management suggests two alternative but complementary approaches, both based upon the concept of an optimal strategy for the user community as a whole. One approach to managing fisheries is to regulate the total harvest at a sustainable level and then to apportion the harvest to fishermen in one of several ways: restrict the season, restrict the effort or adopt a system of catch shares.

The analog for funding universities would be to provide funding at a sustainable level on a suitable scale and then allocate enrollment. That is the current model in Germany and the Nordic countries, reflecting “deeply rooted social values, such as equality of opportunity and social equity” (OECD report, 2015). That model was once common in the United States before public support lost pace with increasing costs and tuition was introduced to make up the shortfall. Examples include the University of California system and City University of New York. New York State’s community colleges were created on an analogous but explicit shared-funding model: one-third funding each from the state, local sponsors and students.

We can and should move toward a more significant national component of a shared funding model, as a partial replacement for the failing present approach of state funding. But perhaps we simply need to start with more open communication about the benefits of investment in public higher education.

Elinor Ostrom, the 2009 Nobel laureate in the economic sciences, essentially called for the emergence of user communities of beneficiaries of a common resource, such as a university, who understand and together effectively manage their common resource, generating a match between the scale of a common resource and the community of its users. As she stated in her Nobel lecture, “Isolated, anonymous individuals overharvest from common-pool resources. Simply allowing communication, or ‘cheap talk,’ enables participants to reduce overharvesting and increase joint payoffs … Large studies of irrigation systems in Nepal and forests around the world challenge the presumption that governments always do a better job than users in organizing and protecting important resources.” In particular, “resources in good condition have users with long-term interests, who invest in monitoring and building trust.”

There has always been an interested user community in America -- beginning with the founding of Harvard University in 1636 as a public-private partnership between the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and some of its wealthier citizens. Recent public-private partnerships include Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Five College Consortium (the University of Massachusetts and four private colleges).

In fact, private universities have also needed to develop and cultivate their own user communities to generate adequate support and have experienced some striking contrasts. Overall alumni giving rates have fallen significantly, but colleges and universities with a well-identified sense of community have experienced increased overall giving and high alumni giving rates. This trend brings hope for the future.

We need to build upon this concept to better support public higher education on a broad, national scale. To this end I offer several concrete suggestions to galvanize a national user community. We should:

  • Develop a unified voice as stakeholders. Public universities are represented by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Association of American Universities, and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Their membership forms a complex Venn diagram. For example, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a member of APLU and AAU but not AASCU, while many other UNC campuses are members of APLU and AASCU but not AAU. There are also separate organizations for private nonprofit universities, for community colleges and for university faculty. Although all of those associations have similar agendas for improving funding for and access to the higher educational common, a unified single voice for public universities could speak more effectively to further a common agenda.
  • Communicate more effectively to the public. We must make the case that support for broad access to higher education is a mission-critical national investment, in the spirit of the post-Sputnik space program and the war on cancer. More budget transparency and improved public outreach are key components.
  • Speak on behalf of a broad national user community of stakeholders in higher education. A partnership including industry, as well as between public and private universities, is needed. I applaud AAU President Mary Sue Coleman’s address “Saving Public Higher Education” at the 2016 World Academic Summit, and in particular her statement “Public universities are the workhorses of American teaching and research. And the benefits to society are powerful.” Although she notes that there are no private research universities in a majority of states, the AAU itself recognizes the value of a broad public-private effort by including 26 private research universities in America among its 62 member institutions. Public and private universities should be coming together to support their common mission and generate increased public support for all.
  • Advocate for more national-scale support, while preserving the independence of public and private universities. Such a program could perhaps be modeled upon a combination of existing federal grants, the National Merit Scholarship Program, Pell Grants and ROTC (as a model of public service).

In summary, we in higher education must work together to build a more active and effective national user community, one that acts on its collective responsibility to support its commons -- the public universities of the United States -- with increased national-scale support.

Harold M. Hastings is professor emeritus at Hofstra University and an adjunct faculty member in the sciences at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. These opinions are his own.

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The nation's electoral divisions highlight questions about the role of public universities (essay)

Today’s presidential election will not fix the broken relationship between Democrats and voters who did not finish college. In the aftermath, will there be anything that universities can do to help with this?

The New York Times recently published a piece about electoral divisions, “Go Midwest, Young Hipster,” that starts with the fact that Republicans get far more representation for their votes than do Democrats. In Ohio, for example, Republicans translated a 51 percent statehouse voting majority into a 75 percent majority of legislators, which gives the party’s slight majority a near fiat power over legislation.

But Alec MacGillis, the article’s author, argues that this problem cannot be handled by reforming the creation of electoral districts. Republicans are great gerrymanderers, it's true, but the underlying problem is that Democrats clump together in blue states and in giant blue cities where most of their votes are superfluous.

The title suggests his solution: Democrats have to move back to the depopulating red states and counties from which they sprang. Unfortunately for this idea, all the people he interviews who could do that -- the native Ohioans who have professional careers in Washington or Los Angeles -- say no way in hell. Wild horses couldn’t drag them out of the land of surplus blue voters and their urban overload of interesting jobs and “creative class” culture.

MacGillis’s piece moves a step beyond the vision of Barack Obama, who reportedly will devote some of his postpresidential career to reducing Republican gerrymandering. There’s only so much that better redistricting can do after The Big Sort has segregated the population in large part by whether or not one graduated from college.

And yet the same is true about the voluntary return that MacGillis advocates. His red-state escapees tell him they won’t do it, so the whole project is doomed from the start.

What locks in the doom is the entire patronizing framework in which MacGillis sees Ohio as place in need of creative class enlightenment -- and in which the social role of public universities is to help people escape their region rather than develop it.

College folks often write about noncollege people as though they were backwoods barbarians who need the civilizing influence of collegiate urbanites. Terms like “red states” and “Midwest” stand for the country’s primitive places. Many analysts apply the same cultural deficiency theory to working-class whites that others have applied to black and brown people. In the case of Charles Murray, it’s the same analyst doing it. Instead of the white man’s burden, MacGillis creates a college man’s burden to return to the red-state jungle to help the natives who didn’t have the brains to escape. You can imagine how the natives feel about that kind of help.

This tradition was codified in Thomas Frank’s influential book, What’s the Matter With Kansas (Henry Holt and Company, 2004), which, for all its strengths, was wrong to say that pro-Republican whites couldn’t see their self-interest and vote for it. Even Michael Moore’s attempt to embrace working-class Trump voters teetered into treating them as abuse victims who can’t think straight (around the halfway point in his interview with Megyn Kelly on Fox News). Presenting red-state dwellers as the nation’s regressives is an ethical, strategic and factual blunder of major proportions.

Neglecting the University’s Core Mission

There’s also a blunder on the politics of knowledge. For several decades, the Democrats have helped underdevelop the industrial belt by heralding the coming of a knowledge economy in which all American “routine production workers,” in Robert Reich’s Clinton-era formulation, were doomed to permanent decline. Wealth creation would henceforth flow from the brainwork of “symbolic analysts.”

The Clintons were fountainheads of this vision of nonuniversity people as the new vanishing Americans. They threw people bones like job retraining programs but didn’t tell them they had anything still to contribute. The Clinton Democrats philosophically abandoned the New Deal and Great Society programs of public works for everyday people, helped to criminalize much of the deindustrialized black working class through such policies as harsher sentencing minimums and disparities in drug sentencing, and refused the large-scale economic redevelopment (coupled with penalties for offshoring jobs) that only the federal government could perform.

Barack Obama has been a chip off the old block. Thus working-class people are still mad at the establishment Democrats and have been willing to listen to Bernie Sanders as well as to Donald Trump. Our college-graduate condescension may yet keep Hillary Clinton out of the White House or, assuming she gets in, keep her from getting anything done.

Here we arrive at the other huge problem: Which side is the public university on? MacGillis offers a standard casting of college as a circus cannon for human capital that fires its cannonball-graduates over their local region into the big cities that can make use of them. That neglects the core mission of public colleges and universities in enabling regional development. Since the Morrill Act in 1862, public colleges have had the public-good obligation of taking nonelite local people and helping them be what they and their community have wanted them to be: better farmers, or machinists, or doctors, or surveyors, or teachers, or politicians, or whatever their needs and desires actually are.

The political principle has been that colleges and universities offer the democratic capabilities on which regional progress depends. At the top of my own list are deep cross-racial experience and comfort with indirect causality. (Donald Trump’s noir power rests on the ability of many people to believe in one-step solutions to complex problems, like “I’ll be reducing taxes tremendously … That’s going to be a job creator like we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan.”) These are just two examples of the many public-good capabilities that develop a region rather than use it as a launching pad to upper-class life elsewhere.

Democrats have been faced with a choice between stressing the public-good or the private-good benefits of public colleges and universities. They have mostly picked door No. 2 and have been as eager as Republicans to stress the wage benefits of graduation and the pecuniary payoff of the whole college operation. In this way, Democrats have played an important role in cutting public funding and raising public college tuition. They have also cooperated in increasing nonresident enrollment at state-supported institutions.

That has played into Republican hands. If college is mainly a private good, then families who don’t attend have no reason to pay taxes for it. If university research is about making money, then private investors rather than government should pay for it. In reality, private market benefits are about one-third of the total benefits of higher education. Democrats in politics and academe have abetted the great ignoring of public-good benefits, and enabled gross public underinvestment.

Remobilizing the People’s Support

Public universities are going to recover only if they rebuild their popular base. That will involve direct contributions to regional development that go beyond the usual touting of tech start-ups (which go to the same handful of cities and employ almost no one). They will need to do two things at once.

First, the less-selective public institutions that most American students attend -- places like the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire or the University of North Carolina at Greensboro -- will need budgetary reinvestment so they can match the level of learning that occurs at wealthier campuses. Lower-income or first-generation students need conceptual intensity and complexity at least as much as affluent students at a flagship majoring in history on their way to an Ivy League law school.

Second, public universities will need to make the college a meaningful presence in the lives of noncollege people. They are doing this one by one -- Clark University’s involvement in local education is an example. In the decades in which community relations has become a low-status activity, Republican propaganda has convinced most nongraduates that universities are hotbeds of people who look down on them and are probably trying to get rid of their jobs (logging, coal, trucking, smokestack manufacturing). This reputation can be fixed with more systematic effort.

Regional colleges will need to demand state refunding for the project of bringing all the local folks to college who want to be there, at whatever age, coupled with contributing more visibly to local social and cultural (and not just economic) development. Elite public universities will need to shift their focus from wealthy donors to regular people, who have very different priorities. The fixation on fund-raising has raised money for many important programs, but it has also narrowed the university’s own vision of its public contributions and cut it off from its popular base.

A few of weeks ago, I outlined emerging international trends that American universities should use to remobilize their popular base. The same forces are at work here, and they could serve as the university’s special power.

The public university needs a broader popular base for its own survival. But this would also help the country. Rather than tacitly casting the red states, counties and precincts as cultural backwaters, universities would mobilize local red-state insights and Midwestern cultural strengths to reduce the mutual alienation between them and the self-designated creative zones. My bet is that colleges that define their missions as general development, rooted in respect for people of all educational levels, will no longer be targeted by voters as ivory towers serving blue-state elites.

Christopher Newfield teaches literature and American Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, and is the author of The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them, just published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

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University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire
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Essay on challenges community college students face in transferring to earn four-year degrees

Tackling Transfer

Growing up in a low-income family, David Machado knew he would have to find creative ways to pay for college.

After graduating from high school in Florida in 2004, he joined the U.S. Navy for the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits and a chance to gain medical experience as a hospital corpsman. And when he went into the reserves in 2010 to have more time to focus on his education, he enrolled in community college, first in North Carolina and then in Connecticut.

Though he had been planning to transfer to a state school or the University of Connecticut, an English teacher convinced him Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., would be a good fit, allowing him to pursue his passions for poetry and painting and his childhood goal of becoming a doctor.

“I fell in love with writing and what he taught, and he’d talk about Wesleyan,” said Machado, now 29.

But his road to transfer wasn’t always smooth. He didn’t find out about a program for automatic transfer to UConn until he had too many credits to qualify. His community college adviser didn’t answer his emails, so he had to drop into his office to get help. Eventually he gave up on the adviser, relying instead on the advice of professors and others, who led him to other opportunities like a summer medical education program at Yale.

Still, he didn’t always take the right classes in his two years in community college.

“I didn’t understand the transferability of classes at the time, so I was just taking classes that would be of interest and would satisfy the pre-med requirements,” Machado said. Because many of his classes only transferred as electives, and some as three credits instead of four, Machado entered Wesleyan as a sophomore.

Though as many as 80 percent of community college students want to transfer, a study by the Community College Research Center, the Aspen Institute and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released in January found that only 14 percent of degree-seeking students earned a bachelor’s within six years. And research has found many pitfalls in the process of transferring from a community college to a four-year school.

Frequently, students at community colleges are advised to take courses that end up not being accepted by the local four-year campus. When courses transfer, many are accepted only as electives and do not count toward the students’ majors. In other instances, the prerequisite courses students need to transfer with junior standing aren’t offered in a given term, and so students either lose time waiting to take the courses or have to transfer and take them at the higher university cost. Research conducted by Public Agenda on the student experience of transfer found that a number of recurring themes are embedded in the stories of students like the one above:

  1. Well-meaning but overwhelmed and underprepared general advisers at community colleges who lack the time and resources to provide students with correct and up-to-date information about degree pathways;
  2. Faculty advisers who are critically important but dangerously siloed;
  3. Diffuse and scattered information resources on transfer that students have difficulty accessing or effectively navigating;
  4. A lack of clear programs of study that carry through the community college into the four-year institution and through graduation;
  5. Insufficient or dysfunctional channels of communication between faculty and staff within and across two-year and four-year institutions, fueled by institutions’ cultural histories of suspicion and competition.

For first-generation and lower-income students, unconfident learners and students who lack clear goals, the stakes of these challenges are particularly high. Public Agenda research found that community college students often blame themselves for the barriers they face in seeking to transfer. Students not only lose time and money as they attempt to navigate broken systems, they also lose hope in their ability to make a better life through education.

In focus groups conducted by the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, students shared some of their frustrations with the transfer process.

I’d rather look for myself than ask for somebody to answer the questions, because I’ve had cases where those questions weren’t answered correctly, and since they’re not answered correctly it’s a big, big mistake. … If you miss a deadline because somebody answered your question wrong, you start getting skeptical about the advice you’re getting.

A quote from Public Agenda’s research captures the hope deficit that is created through the problems community college transfer students face.

I’m getting tired of school. I had a plan and thought I was doing everything right, and everyone I talked to [at the school] seemed so sure they were giving me the right information, so I never questioned it because I had no idea what I was doing. But here I am and I’ve probably lost two whole semesters taking classes I didn’t need or that ended up not transferring or counting toward my major. I don’t even want to think about the money I lost, because I couldn’t afford to lose it … at this point, honestly, I don’t know if I’m ever going to finish. I’m just getting tired.

The stories of transfer students show the dogged persistence needed to make it.

Jordan Kratz came out of high school in 2012 planning to be a veterinary technician. She chose SUNY Canton in northern New York for its specialized curriculum. But by the spring of her second year, Kratz, from Ballston Spa, N.Y., decided she didn’t want to work with animals full time and applied to transfer to Ithaca College.

“I actually did a total flip,” she said in a recent interview. “I’m in communications management and design.”

Kratz, now 21, dived into research on four-year colleges with the help of her parents and advice from friends. She didn’t turn to her adviser, who was a veterinarian experienced in helping students going to veterinary school.

“I didn’t know if he would have the advice for me that I was looking for,” she said.

The Ithaca admissions office was helpful, answering questions and offering tours, but it wasn’t until she enrolled that she got the full story on how her Canton credits would apply to requirements at Ithaca. Because Ithaca has a very specific core curriculum, many of Kratz’s credits only transferred for general credit.

“On my transcript it just says, ‘transfer elective,’” she said. “It doesn’t even say what the course was.”

In order to catch up, she has to take a series of courses in humanities, creative arts, social sciences and diversity on top of the upper-division courses in her major. But because she has senior standing, the registration system locks her out of the core classes designated for freshmen and sophomores.

“I’m actually having a hard time getting into them as a transfer student,” she said. By the time she files the override paperwork and, if that fails, appeals to the dean, the classes are full.

“You would think when they know you’re a transfer student they would override you into those classes,” Kratz said.

With four more core classes to go, in addition to other requirements, she’s hoping to graduate in the spring of 2017. By then she will have many more credits than she needs to graduate, even after having taken a semester off as she transferred.

“If I did the typical four years in college I should graduate this May,” she said.

Creating the conditions for more students to successfully transfer with junior standing in their majors is the collective work of institutions, systems and policy makers. Students share in the responsibility, but systems need to work better for the majority of students who come to community college with fewer supports and less confidence than Kratz.

As institutional leaders and policy makers seek to diagnose and address a tremendous host of challenges facing transfer students, elevating the voices and perspectives of students themselves is an essential piece of the work to be done.

Alison Kadlec is senior vice president and director of higher education and workforce programs at Public Agenda. Elizabeth Ganga is a communications specialist at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College.

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