Community colleges would get $8 billion over the next 3 years, the maximum Pell Grant would increase, and some research funding would grow in the president's proposed budget for higher education programs.
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.”
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.
January is the time when we say good-bye to the previous 12 months and look ahead to the next ones. It’s clear that 2016 was an especially turbulent year for higher education. What’s on tap for 2017?
Here are a few of the most serious trending issues that are likely to affect colleges and universities.
Sliding enrollments. College and university enrollment in America continued to decline in 2016, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Not all institutions have been affected equally: four-year public and elite private institutions continue to grow, while small colleges are under strain, intensifying the gap between haves and have-nots. The University of California, Berkeley, for example, tipped over the 100,000 mark for applications this fall, and Yale University announced a multiyear effort to enroll more students from its sizable pool. But more than four in 10 private colleges and almost three in 10 public ones missed their goals for enrollment and tuition revenue in 2016.
While demographic trends vary by region, in general the student population is becoming more diverse, fueled by increases in numbers of Hispanic and Asian students. Many colleges also have relied upon international students to diversify their campuses and plug the enrollment hole, but concerns over Trump administration rhetoric about immigration may depress international applications, as has already occurred in British universities in the wake of the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union.
Concerns about cost and access. The free-college effort is likely dead at the federal level, but that doesn’t mean concerns about cost will abate. Bipartisan pressure will continue to force colleges and universities to rein in tuition increases and justify endowment spending, as well as compel selective institutions to increase enrollment of low-income students. States and cities also have the opportunity to adopt the narrative about free; New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was first out of the gate in 2017, and others are likely to follow.
Celebrity authors and scholars as well as politicians have led such efforts. Malcolm Gladwell launched a podcast series in 2016 decrying the high cost of college and poor access for low-income students. Sara Goldrick-Rab at Temple University and Inside Higher Edcolumnist Wick Sloan, among others, have led campaigns to highlight the challenges of college students who are homeless or food insecure -- more than 20 percent, according to a national report.
Colleges and universities are responding. Thirty campuses have joined an effort funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies called the American Talent Initiative, while more than 90 institutions participate in the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success. Both efforts aim to reduce barriers and increase the number of lower-income students who apply to and enroll in selective colleges. Campuses also are launching food banks, shelter programs and emergency assistance funds for students who have short-term challenges with food or housing.
Questions about value. A growing chorus of business and civic leaders is questioning the value of college. One of the most vocal proponents of the skip-college narrative, Peter Thiel, has a newly influential role as a member of the Trump transition team. The presidential election pointed up a stark gap in opportunity and perception between college graduates and those with a college degree, leading to headlines about the “humbling of higher education” and college graduates who are “out of touch.”
Colleges are renewing their efforts to demonstrate value, not only in employment and earnings benefits to graduates but also in their role as an economic engine for regional economies. A growing number of campuses, both large and small, have embarked on new efforts to engage with their local communities. And research institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania and Carnegie Mellon University have large, sustained innovation initiatives to spur new business development and commercialize faculty and student discoveries.
A focus on careers and job placement. Although related to the discussion about value, the growing concern about employment and job placement is so powerful that it deserves its own entry. Students and parents increasingly expect their college or university to be a partner in helping them to map out a successful career path. The 2016 Gallup-Purdue study found a gap between student expectations and college performance in career placement, with only one in six college graduates saying their campus career office was helpful.
Colleges and universities of all types and sizes -- from research-intensive institutions to small liberal arts colleges -- are revamping career services and redefining their role in student career planning. Examples of new programs include engaging first-year students in the career office from day one, alumni career mentoring initiatives and targeted efforts to provide career support for low-income and first-generation college students.
Declining state support. Although not a new trend, the impact of declining state support for higher education has generated a new level of concern. Starving the Beast, a documentary about ideological shifts in state government and the resulting impact on public universities, was released in 2016 and sparked public discussion and numerous opinion pieces.
In December, the University of Virginia’s Miller Center issued recommendations on how to sustain public higher education. The center assembled a team of college administrators, business executives and former public officials, including former governors of Delaware and Florida. Their list of solutions includes federal block grants designed to pressure states into supporting public colleges adequately, as well as funding incentives tied to graduation rates.
Collisions over campus climate. Creating a welcoming climate for women and minorities is a long-running issue for college campuses, but things reached a boiling point after the 2016 presidential election. White nationalist groups have seized the opportunity to spread hate messages on campuses across the country. Trump rhetoric about immigration and Muslims has left many students feeling vulnerable, leading to pressure for campuses to declare themselves “sanctuaries” for undocumented students.
Immigration policy under a Trump administration is uncertain, as is the position of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights -- and in particular the enforcement of Title IX. Regardless of federal policy, activism around Title IX and sexual misconduct is likely to continue, and campuses are expected to sharpen their focus on programs, policies and support systems to combat sexual assault and harassment.
The dialogue about campus climate has increasingly included overcoming a racist past. Some institutions -- Georgetown University has been a leader -- have owned up to a history of slavery and made significant changes such as renaming buildings or programs. Other campuses have dedicated new or existing spaces in honor of African-American leaders. Whether proactively, such as the University of Michigan, or responding to a crisis, such as the University of Missouri, a number of colleges and universities have launched comprehensive plans focused on diversity and inclusion.
The defense of academic freedom and free speech. The University of Chicago brought free speech back into the spotlight this fall with the welcome letter its college dean sent to incoming students. Exactly what constitutes free speech in a university, and does it conflict with trigger warnings and attempts to create safe spaces for vulnerable groups such as members of racial minorities or survivors of sexual assault? Although all colleges defend free speech and play an important role in educating students about it, the precise boundaries vary from one campus to another.
One thing is certain: it’s easier to argue for free speech when you’re the one speaking. After the presidential election, some students who voted for Trump felt attacked and said they needed safe space, too. A “professor watch list” has been launched to shame faculty members conservatives think are pushing liberal ideas in the classroom. And the Trump transition team recently sent questionnaires throughout the Department of Energy to identify work done on climate change, raising alarm bells in the academy. Climate scientists are now organizing to defend their research and academic freedom.
So, What to Do?
The tensions are mounting and so are the stakes. Since head in the sand is not an effective strategy, we’d like to offer a few guideposts for higher education institutions that are navigating today’s uncertain terrain.
Be self-critical. Colleges and universities can assess and acknowledge areas for improvement and confront them with constructive game plans. Proactive leadership begins with self-evaluation and plans for change.
Make sure college is worth it. It is not enough to decry the devaluing of a liberal education. Our scan shows just how deep public skepticism about the cost and value of college runs, and higher education must find substantial ways both to lower student costs and increase the return on their investment. Career assistance, better information about job placement, opportunities for internships and increases in scholarship support all have to be on each institution’s docket.
Bridge the divide with new communications methods and fresh perspective. If it is us versus them, we cannot make progress. From continued defunding of public higher ed to sensationalized campus rhetoric, polarized stances are inhibiting shared understanding. Can we set aside blame and labels and work instead to listen more carefully toward finding some common ground? That will entail an authentic, two-way dialogue and new ways of describing and demonstrating value in today’s world, not just the usual universityspeak.
Find innovative new collaborators and partnerships. The coming year won’t be one of business as usual. New partnerships and opportunities, more innovation, and perhaps the occasional odd bedfellow can help illuminate new opportunities and advance mutual goals.
Get out ahead. The colleges and universities that best weather challenging storms are those that best anticipate and confront issues early and honestly.
Lisa M. Rudgers and Julie A. Peterson are co-founders of Peterson Rudgers Group, a consulting firm focused on higher education strategy, leadership and brand.
The late Notre Dame University president Father Ted Hesburgh advocated for the values that animate liberal education: critical thinking, persuasive communication, insightful judgment, cultural competence. He saw these values as essential to liberate people from inchoate fear, prejudice and the sense of powerlessness that often accompanies social change.
Buoyed by the votes of millions of Americans who never went to college, the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States seems to be a failure for American higher education. President-elect Trump’s rhetoric articulates values that are the antithesis of the liberal education values that Father Hesburgh proclaimed.
How did higher education in one of the most educated nations in human history lose its narrative and become marginalized in the wave of fear and resentment that Trump rode to victory?
Hesburgh was at his peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and in some ways that social and cultural era has parallels today: widespread dissatisfaction with “the establishment,” a fear of America’s loss of international prestige because of being bogged down in an unwinnable war, alienated young people, racial strife and the emergence of a political demagogue with roots in the anti-intellectualism of the McCarthy era -- a man who harbored a long sense of grievance against college-educated elites. President Richard Nixon’s defeat of Hubert Humphrey and, later, George McGovern might now be seen as foreshadowing the pathway to President Trump.
Hesburgh locked arms with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., staunchly advocating for civil and human rights; he defied President Nixon. There is no Ted Hesburgh today. There are certainly wise and courageous presidents speaking out here and there, but there is no singular great voice strengthening the backbone of American higher education and daring to stand in the bully pulpit of reasoned opposition to expressions of hatred and threatened repression. We have no prominent moral and intellectual leader asserting the role of higher education as the central pillar of principled debate about the means and ends of government.
Instead, for quite a long while, American higher education has been adrift in a devolving eddy of self-pity, whining about overregulation while obsessing about bracket placements and rankings, pandering to political and philanthropic overlords while remaining largely silent on the great social issues of our times. We have lost the great narrative of American higher education as the counterweight to government excess, as the bastion of free thought and speech, as the public intellectual voice of the society.
We have allowed the story of higher education today to become one about value, to be sure -- monetary value, dollars and cents as surrogates for quality and more important moral values. It’s not just about the incredible wealth of some universities, although that is part of the perceived value today, at least in rankings. Even more, it’s all about the economics for the consumers: whether the student finds the experience of higher education to be valuable not in terms of the person we help him or her to become, but rather, whether the graduate gets a well-paying job. PayScale has shoved aside the philosopher king as the arbiter of the worth of college.
Higher education needs a deep and pervasive transformation of its value proposition for the American public and the global society we serve. And this value proposition should be, unabashedly, about real civic, social and moral values -- a concept that Hesburgh warned was on the wane in his time, whose weakness has led to our marginalization in the national conversation about the kind of society America wants to be. In a broadly collaborative effort among all types of institutions, we must find solutions to these issues:
Expanding access to college. The election exposed the fault line that runs deep between college-educated Americans and those who have not gone to college, a sort of Starbucks v. speedway divide. There’s a tremendous irony right now in that many, if not most, colleges and universities are struggling to fill seats, and yet millions of Americans remain outside higher education.
Too many institutions, particularly wealthy private and flagship state institutions, claim a desire to welcome more low-income students of color yet fail to change the interior circumstances of costs, culture, educational programs and pathways that would enlarge the pipeline and ensure success for those students. Meanwhile, other significantly less wealthy institutions -- community colleges, open-access public institutions, smaller nonelite private colleges -- dare to enroll large numbers of low-income students and those of color. But we wind up being roundly criticized by media and policy makers because these students do not progress through college according to traditional measures of persistence and completion.
While we spend a lot of time worrying about the shrinking demographic of immediate high school graduates, in fact, the problem is not too few students, but rather, not enough seats configured in the right way to get more Americans into and successfully through the college maze. To achieve transformation, we must consider deep changes in degree requirements, curricula and programs, delivery systems, and cocurricular services. We need more focus on students and less on institutions. We must have deeper understanding of the 75 percent of students with “nontraditional” characteristics such as work, parenting and other family responsibilities while attending college.
We must end the obsessive inter-institutional competitiveness that drives up costs while keeping too many students out, replacing competition with a more open collaboration that recognizes and makes good use of the different characteristics of the spectrum of institutions to support student needs at each stage of the academic life cycle.
We should, collectively, reconsider the fundamental principles of general education, majors and electives, as well as the amount of credit required to earn degrees. What is the magic of the 120-credit baccalaureate degree? Is there a different way to achieve the same learning outcomes in a shorter, more efficient way?
Barriers to access also exist in the inhospitable corners of campus cultures that foster cruel exclusions (e.g., Greek houses), spawn attitudes where sexual abuse and assault thrive, or give life to racial, ethnic or religious bigotry. All those behaviors drive students who are “other” away, contribute to diminished academic performance and degrade the values of the academy. We can hardly exert moral leadership for the larger society if we continue to tolerate discriminatory, abusive behaviors on our own campuses.
Reforming the cost/price structure. No programmatic changes will amount to anything unless and until we reform the cost/price structure. College has become entirely too expensive for most people to bear, even with generous financial aid. Debt burdens are impossibly heavy, and tuition discounting has become overwhelming and harmful for many private colleges. We are sinking under the weight of an enterprise that has become too costly to sustain.
While many costs are fixed and hard to reduce, every budget has, in fact, opportunities for expense reformation that can control costs more effectively. We have to reconsider how much we spend on facilities, executive compensation and technology investments that quickly become obsolete. We need to do a better job reducing expenses for activities that are ancillary to the purpose of the university -- dare I mention athletics?
Universities with great wealth have a great opportunity right now. Rather than waiting for the new administration to act, perhaps the wealthiest universities could collaborate in a way that would help all students by pooling some percentage of their earnings to create a new foundation for college access that could benefit students broadly throughout higher education.
Reclaiming our public intellectual voice. A journalist recently asked me why college presidents are so darned reluctant to have anything to say about the important issues of our times. Some presidents say that they feel constrained by their boards or their political situations, particularly in state institutions. Others say they don’t feel a president should express opinions on public issues because that would be interpreted as intimidating those who disagree.
Father Hesburgh wrote in 1976 that the best gift a president can give to students is the gift of a good example. He wrote, “There are great moral issues facing young and old alike today … the young [should] perceive clearly where we elders stand on issues like human rights, world poverty and hunger, good government, preserving the fragile ecosphere …” Today, I would add where we stand on issues like Black Lives Matter, the deportation of undocumented children, religious bigotry and repression of religious expression, objectification and degradation of women, and freedom of speech and the press.
While respecting individual campus challenges, I disagree with those presidents who advocate silence as a form of some sort of politesse, a discretion that makes sure everyone remains comfortable. That, to me, is the height of political correctness. We need to risk being politically incorrect at times, in the best possible ways. We must roust our faculty members and students out of their comfort zones, to give voice to the values that our mission statements and vision documents claim as our entire reason for being.
In the next four years, if not eight or more, this country and higher education could well be challenged in ways we’ve not seen since the McCarthy era to demonstrate courage and conviction on behalf of the fundamental values of our society: free speech, equality of educational and economic opportunity for all people, racial justice, the right to profess every religion without fear of reprisal, the right to enjoy the blessings of liberty for all.
We must be courageous advocates for our students who are at risk right now, particularly for our undocumented students and students of color who continue to suffer racial hatred. We must stand up for equal rights for women, starting at home on our college campuses. We can hardly be advocates for justice in the world if we ignore the shameful stain of sexual assault on campus.
The promise of America has always been grander than our reality, but we had hoped in the last half century to have moved past the racial, ethnic and religious bigotry that now runs rampant with the approval, role modeling and rhetoric of the next president of the United States. The election was a shocking result, but perhaps it’s a necessary one to force higher education to reclaim its public voice.
We have to teach our students that self-governance among citizens of a free society is not a zero-sum game; that in order to help those in need we do not have to take opportunities away from others; that we should take greater care in developing solutions that do not pit people against each other, breeding the anger and resentment that fueled the presidential campaign.
Ultimately, our job is to educate the citizen leaders who will build the future of civilization, and we must find a way to teach them how to be far more effective in constructing a truly good society than we have been able to create thus far.
We college presidents are not curators of museums to some glorious past for human history. We are stewards of humanity’s future, and the current circumstances require us to exert far more moral courage and intellectual scope than we have ever dared before.