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A judge recently signed off on an agreement between New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority and disability-rights advocates. The MTA committed to making 95 percent of its subway stations elevator accessible … by 2055, when my youngest son will be 62 years old. That’s more than six decades after passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Even then, the system will still not be 100 percent accessible.

According to The New York Times, “Transit officials have said engineering concerns, construction time and costs all necessitate a long-term plan.”

It’s not just New York City’s subways. It’s high-speed rail. Power transmission lines. Affordable housing. And more.

Nor is the United States commercializing and mass-producing technologies it invented, like nuclear technology, solar cells or wind turbines. Another striking example of relative decline: the U.S. no longer builds the world’s tallest buildings.

How about power lines. It’s not enough to generate clean power with solar cells or windmills or geothermal. New sources of power must be connected to electric grid—which includes an application process that takes years and grid upgrades that are so expensive that many projects don’t pan out.

Or take high-speed rail: “Outside Amtrak’s 28 miles of 150-m.p.h. track in rural Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the American rail network is largely limited to speeds of 110 m.p.h. or less.”

Crumbling roads, deteriorating bridges, congested highways, poor public transportation, a housing shortage that drives rents and sale prices upward all prompt many to ask why? Why can’t a country that pioneered the steel-wire suspension bridge, the world’s largest subway system, the first concrete paved highway, the internal engine powered bus and mass-produced suburban housing do such things efficiently and affordably today?

Have we reached the point where the United States can’t do big things anymore, like the transcontinental railroad, the interstate highway system, the Apollo missions, Hoover Dam, the Manhattan Project or the Normandy invasion? If this is indeed the case, what happened?

Whether we’re speaking of critical infrastructure, mass transit or affordable housing, the United States’ ability to build cheaply and quickly has tanked.

Why can peer countries accomplish what the U.S. can’t? Why is it that American infrastructure projects often cost five to six times what they cost in other developed countries?

None of these questions is academic. When the public or politicians dismiss a question as purely academic, they mean that that the issue is of only theoretical interests. But the question about why the U.S. can’t build critical infrastructure is anything but purely theoretical. It’s utterly practical. Whether we’re speaking of the green transition or addressing homelessness or expanding enrollment at UC Berkeley, construction is imperative. Yet the barriers seem insuperable.

It turns out that neither higher land costs nor labor costs explain the difference. So what does?

To many small-government, low-tax conservatives, the explanations are painfully obvious: onerous and inflexible regulations, powerful unions, needless litigation, a flawed, tortuously slow (or corrupt) bidding process, frequent change orders, pork-barrel spending and featherbedding work rules. But this explanation has an obvious flaw: labor unions are even stronger in Europe and government regulation is even tighter.

To many on the left, much blame lies in the lack of adequate and secure long-term funding, which prevents government from developing the capacity to plan, construct and maintain major infrastructure projects.

Other policy pundits attribute excessively high costs to anti-building rules that reflect Not In My Backyard attitudes. Or an “everything bagel liberalism”—the refusal to privilege one priority over others.

There’s some truth to these claims, but much of the problem lies elsewhere.

  • A lack of central leadership, planning, coordination and prioritization that results in a helter-skelter approach to development.
  • A failure or refusal to look at foreign examples of best practices.
  • An abundance of interest groups with competing agendas and fiefdoms.
  • Mission creep, where projects tackle responsibilities outside their core purpose, pulling attention from away from essential functions and diluting a project’s impact while increasing costs.
  • Inadequate government administrative capacity and accountability, with planning and designed outsourced at great expense to consultants.
  • Diffuse responsibility with no one fully accountable for a project’s timeline for successful, cost-effective completion.
  • An adversarial legalism and inflexible proceduralism: In contrast to the situation in foreign countries, governmental decisions about infrastructure and housing can be litigated at length.
  • A surfeit of democracy: This includes an excessive emphasis on community input, micromanaging politicians, multiple governing bodies, departments and agencies with oversight responsibilities and their own agendas and interested parties that exploit the legal system.

Unlike the interstate highway system, which was the product of a clearly defined vision, implementation strategy, measurable outcome and sustained investment, the U.S. today is less willing to remove obstacles that impede the development of an improved electrical grid, expanded mass transit or new housing or to provide long-term funding reflecting the absence of a political consensus.

In New York City, subway costs could have been contained if stations were more compact or if designs and equipment were more uniform or if various city and state agencies were more willing to cooperate or if less planning and project management were outsourced to expensive consultants or if project funding were more stable.

The challenges facing higher education are not wholly dissimilar from those facing infrastructure, housing and health care, the sectors that cost much more in the United States than elsewhere.

Let’s look at three areas where higher ed is currently dysfunctional but could significantly improve performance.

  1. Seamless Transfer: All told, about nearly 40 percent of all college students transfer before earning a degree. Although roughly 80 percent of community college students want to earn a bachelor’s degree, only 31 percent actually transfer to a four-year school. Far from treating transfer as a normal and accepted process, transfer pathways are notoriously leaky, with the typical transfer student losing the equivalent of four courses or about a semester’s worth of classes. In my view, receiving institutions need to take proactive steps to better advise transfer students, enhance transfer student support, ensure equal access to financial aid and essential courses and ensure that transfer credits apply both to gen ed and major requirements.
  2. Workforce Preparation: I, unlike some recent commentators, don’t think parents or students are wrong to expect colleges to do a better job of preparing graduates for future careers. Why shouldn’t our campuses open windows into job market trends from Day 1 or offer marketable skills training through access to job-related boot camps, self-guided courses and supervised internships that are credited on their transcripts? Providing access to industry-recognized certificates and certifications and training in industry-specific software can supplement and augment a liberal arts education, not replace it. There’s nothing wrong with enhancing a college degree’s return on investment.
  3. Better Serving the New Student Majority: Nontraditional students—working adults, family caregivers, commuters, international students, nonnative English speakers, first-generation college students, students from low-SES backgrounds and students with disabilities—now make up a substantial majority of the undergraduate population. Their needs must become a much higher campus priority. That will require institutions to rethink course scheduling (for example, by instituting block scheduling), delivery modalities (with more hybrid and low residency courses or evening and weekend classes), advising and support services (which need to be more proactive and available digitally) and student life (such as integrating co-curricular activities into existing courses).

So what lessons might higher education draw from the scholarship on infrastructure?

  1. Innovate less and imitate more. You needn’t reinvent the wheel. Good examples and best practices abound. Look outside your home institution for inspiration and advice.
  2. Build a consensus around institutional priorities. You can’t be successful without clear goals. Make sure your goals are specific, realistic, time-bound and measurable. Don’t allow mission creep to distract you from your priorities.
  3. Understand senior leadership’s role. It is to build consensus, create coalitions, craft compromises, coordinate initiatives, articulate a shared vision, align stakeholders’ interests, incentivize campus priorities, provide resources, recognize accomplishment and generate momentum.
  4. Cultivate internal expertise and know-how. Be wary of excessive reliance on consultants or contractors or other third-party vendors. Recognize that a lot of expertise already exists within your campus. Leverage that knowledge and know-how.
  5. Keep your eyes on the prize. Improvement is an incremental and iterative process that requires patience and persistence. It often requires investments in unglamorous items, like data infrastructure. It also requires a willingness to reassess as circumstances evolve. Without perseverance and resolve, your goals really are unattainable.

For all the concern about lagging infrastructure development, there are areas where innovation in the United States thrives, most notably in medicine. Michael Milken, the 1980s “junk bond king,” recently described some promising medical breakthroughs, including statins, genome sequencing, immunotherapies, monoclonal antibodies, anti-retroviral cocktails, robotic surgeries, CRISPR gene editing, mRNA vaccines and cell therapy.

Thus, whatever stagnation is taking place, it’s not universal. It’s ultimately a matter of priority setting. The U.S. no longer feels a need to erect the world’s tallest buildings as a status symbol. Medical treatments, in contrast, are a high national priority—even if medical care remains inequitably distributed.

When everything seems critical or urgent, in reality nothing’s essential. The challenge higher ed faces is to identify each campus’ core challenges and strategic priorities and then mobilize faculty and staff and institutional resources to address those pressing challenges with a laser-like focus. Otherwise, those challenges will go unmet, whatever your campus might claim.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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