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.
Since the late 1980s, colleges and universities have spent increasingly more per student across nearly every major spending category, according to a new report from a Federal Reserve Bank economist who says his findings indicate broad-based reasons behind rising college costs.
The report, an Economic Commentary released Wednesday by the Cleveland Fed and Senior Research Economist Peter Hinrichs, found inflation-adjusted per-student spending rising across categories at both public and private four-year institutions from 1987 to 2013. Private college and university spending growth outpaced that of publics in most categories, Hinrichs found.
Research spending experienced some of the highest growth, rising 62 percent, or $1,930 per student, at public institutions and 71 percent, or $3,647 per student, at private institutions. Student services also saw a high increase on a percentage basis, rising 54 percent, or $556 per student, at public institutions and 108 percent, or $1,881 per student, at private institutions.
Public university per-student spending only fell in operations and plant maintenance, where it dropped 8 percent, or $148 per student. Private university per-student spending only fell in public service, slipping 9 percent, or $131.
Hinrichs has previously found that the share of employees holding administrative positions in higher education has not changed substantially between 1987 and 2013, a finding many would consider contrary to popular belief.
We usually think of college as providing a boost up the class ladder. That is what it did for a generation or more of Americans, particularly from the 1950s through the 1970s. But since around 1980, college has actually calcified class in America.
That’s one upshot of Tamara Draut’s new book, Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America (Doubleday, 2016). She explains how the central divide between the working class and the middle class now is college. Not that things are entirely rosy for those with bachelor’s degrees, but those without degrees have experienced a more severe pinch, with proportionately shrinking wages, degraded conditions, few job protections and general insecurity.
Moreover, contrary to college standing as an open thoroughfare for Americans wanting to rise, it has become a gated toll road primarily available to those from middle-class and upper-class families. Those who have gone to college beget those who go to college: if your parents didn’t go to college, you are much more likely to work at or near minimum wage. Only about 9 percent of those from the lowest quartile of wealth complete college degrees, whereas about three-quarters from the top quartile do.
A key impediment has been the exponential rise of tuition prices since the 1970s, at several times the rate of inflation, correlated with the reduction of public support, which in turn has brought the steep increase in student debt and student work hours.
This has produced what Draut called in an earlier essay “The Growing College Gap,” in Inequality Matters: The Growing Economic Divide in America and Its Poisonous Consequences. We usually think that we have seen great progress if not solved the problem of racial inequality, but the enrollment gap between white students and black students was about 5 percent in 1970, whereas it had more than doubled, to 11 percent, in 2000. Similarly, Hispanic students have seen the gap widen from 5 to 13 percent. Affirmative action gets headlines, but we have actually gone backward in attaining racial equality in higher education.
One of Draut’s key insights is that the class divide is not just a matter of money but also one of culture. As she remarks, “When once a steelworker and an accountant could live on the same block, drive the same car, vacation at the same place and eat at the same restaurants, over the course of the 1980s, 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s” those from higher classes have little substantive contact with those from the working class except when they ring up their groceries or take care of their elderly relatives.
That has precipitated a public and political blindness to the new working class, even though it constitutes 60 percent of Americans. Rather than a silent majority, it is an invisible majority.
The cultural divide has two daunting consequences. Because those who work in journalism and other news media come from the upper, college-degreed cohort -- as Draut adduces, in 1971 only about half of journalists had B.A.s, whereas 92 percent do now -- they have little direct sense of the working class. Nor is there a strong interest to represent it in the main news organs, like The New York Times or The Washington Post, whose audiences are largely college educated.
In Draut’s analysis, after the 2008 crash, about half of the news focused on the banks, a third on the federal response, a fifth on businesses and only a smattering on working-class people who might have lost jobs or their houses. Rather, the Post ran a feature on a banker getting by on a reduction of her salary -- to $300,000 a year. Hard times indeed.
Similarly, those who work as congressional staffers come almost entirely from college backgrounds. Of high-level staffers, about half “attended private colleges for their undergraduate degree, including 10 percent who went to an Ivy League school.” They are typically the ones who get the internships inside the D.C. beltway, as well as can afford to carry the expenses of internships.
That has effectively shut the working class out of public representation or political power, even though it constitutes a majority. For Draut, the key is to change the narrative, popping what she calls the “class bubble.” One corrective is simply that we are not all middle class: most Americans are working class.
In addition, Sleeping Giant shows that the present working class no longer fits the iconic image of the construction worker in hard hat who had a union to speak for him. Instead, it is largely female, about half Latino and African-American, usually nonunionized, and struggling to make ends meet at or near minimum wage while laboring in home health care, fast food and retail, which have gained the bulk of new jobs.
Since college is a key class marker, it’s easy to blame higher education itself as the problem. But for Draut the problem lies in the policies that have drained equal opportunity from it and segregated it, and in turn she advocates policies to enhance public higher education, notably reducing tuition fees and eliminating student debt. In this, she differs from the diagnosis of John Marsh, who argues in Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality(Monthly Review, 2011), that college has been overemphasized and offers a false solution, so we should pare back college attendance.
Draut herself was a working-class beneficiary of higher education: the daughter of a steelworker, she went to a public university near home in Ohio, which sent her on her way to a job in advertising, then with Planned Parenthood, and since 2001 with Demos, a progressive think tank, where she started as a researcher and is currently a vice president.
Demos was founded in the 1990s as a counterweight to the many conservative think tanks, and it has produced reports such as “The Great Cost Shift,” about the draining of public support for higher education, and “The College Compact,” about enhancing public support. Draut first worked on studies of credit-card and student loan debt, which spurred her earlier exposé, Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead (Doubleday, 2006).
She learned a lesson from the battle over credit cards. In seeking reform, as she recalled in an interview with me, “there’s a beltway mentality, ‘Well, that’s never going to happen; we’re never going to regulate the credit-card companies.’” But she proudly attended the 2009 signing of the Credit Card Act, which regulates rates and fees and has helped those in debt. As she quipped, “I got the last laugh on that one,” and she sees the same possibility for higher education: “Debt-free college is now a real idea and part of the political debate.”
That’s one salutary reminder we can take from Draut: it might be a long road, but good ideas that seem unrealistic at one moment can win their day. In academic scholarship, we typically focus on conceptual problems, commenting on one and moving onto the next, and in fact we are continually looking for what’s new or next. But in politics, change sometimes seems glacial, and one has to be dogged. It’s useful to keep in mind that massive student debt is only a recent development, arising since the 1980s, and 10 years ago, the idea of abolishing it or enacting free public higher education were considered pie-in-the-sky proposals. But they’re on the agenda now, and we have to keep working to accrue the data, build the narratives and devise policies that aim toward more equality.
Jeffrey J. Williams is a professor of English and of literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University. His most recent book is How to Be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University (Fordham University Press, 2014).
Higher education is glutted with courses, many of which are marginal or associated with arcane, duplicative or outdated subjects. That is at the heart of tuition increases, student debt, budget shortfalls, legislative distrust, poor adjunct pay and too few tenured or tenure-eligible professors at typical colleges and universities.
Last year Forbes reported that more than half of American professors are part time or not tenure eligible. Contingent faculty members are hired to facilitate the ever-expanding curricula. Because they typically are not empowered to take leadership roles in departments, the service workload of continuing professors has increased, affecting research, advising and instruction.
Professors can debate the causes of budget shortfalls at their institutions. There is plenty of blame to go around.
An influential opinion piece in The New York Times Sunday Review, “The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much,” notes that public investment in higher education, when adjusted for inflation, is vastly higher than 1960s levels when government funding was deemed generous.
According to the op-ed, any argument about a lack of public support for higher education “flies directly in the face of the facts.” Rather, the piece cites the increase in administrative positions coupled with seven-figure salaries for presidents as the real reasons for budgetary deficits triggering higher tuition.
The Atlantic Monthly ended 2015 with a special report titled “Hope and Despair: What Is the Future of Higher Education?” It included interviews with leading scholars and advocates for higher education who spoke about the usual impediments: lack of public funding, declining student competencies and overemphasis on preparing graduates for the workforce.
In the wake of such an environment, the report noted, colleges resort to “an array of cost-saving measures, relying increasingly on adjunct faculty and student-tuition increases.”
Not once was curriculum mentioned, nor how it impacts the budget.
Many colleges and universities have adopted budget models called by many names, including responsibility-centered management or resource management models. Those practices are often tied to curricular development, allocating funds based on student credit-hour generation rather than on the number of majors.
In other words, a department with fewer than 50 majors may have a bigger budget than another with 1,000 majors, all based on the number of credits amassed via curriculum.
These budget models became prevalent in the last decade, spawning a tsunami of courses across disciplines as units promoted trendy topics or duplicated other departments’ popular classes. Budget models were not supposed to inflate catalogs. Initially, the hope was more relevant courses would be embraced and low-enrolled courses eliminated.
However, administrators overlooked a fundamental problem: the faculty owns the curriculum.
As such, presidents, provosts, deans and even chairs can do little to stop departments proposing new courses, retaining outdated ones, mandating prerequisites and creating sequences, options and tracks.
Professors and the organizations that represent them will have difficulty amending budget models, addressing top-heavy administration, reducing salaries of presidents, urging corporations to stop agenda setting and rallying legislatures for more funding.
But they and faculty senates can and should do something about glutted curricula. Otherwise, they can count on:
Slim to no raises each year because of tight budgets.
The more new courses, the more people will be required to teach them.
Adjuncts will probably be working even harder for lower pay because that is the only way glutted curricula can be serviced.
Assistant and associate professors will be teaching more with extra service and conducting scholarship less, potentially affecting promotion.
Degree progress will slow, adding to student debt.
Below you will find recommendations for the faculty to fight curricular glut, the sheer scope of which indicates the power of the typical professoriate in matters associated with curricula:
Require paperwork within your unit documenting why any new course is needed, what it will cost (equipment, software, licenses, subscriptions, graduate assistants, etc.), how it will affect degree progress and whether it will add to colleagues’ workload.
Create or use universal course titles, such as “seminar” or “workshop,” allowing different subjects each semester without expanding curricula.
Eliminate outdated courses that may have been important in other eras but less so now. (Often classes remain long after professors who proposed them have retired.)
Delete any course with the word “intermediate” in the usual triptych of classes titled “beginning,” “intermediate” and “advanced.” (Or with suffixes 1, 2, 3, as in Economics 1, 2, 3.) Those are often artifacts of the quarter system. Make beginning and advanced classes more rigorous so the same content exists in two rather than three courses.
Require no more than two cornerstone classes (introductory course work) for first- and second-year students and two capstone courses for juniors and seniors. Make as many as possible of remaining courses electives that any of your own majors can take, accelerating degree progress.
Remove as many prerequisites as possible, especially ones associated with silos (courses promoting one viewpoint or topic). Silos undermine degree progress if students must take one course to qualify for another when no new particular skill is required.
End sequences and tracks. If a genre of courses doesn’t appear on a diploma, it may be a silo. (Example: American Colonial History on a history diploma.) Make those classes electives, and let students decide whether to take them. Better still, reduce the number of courses in the silo so that it no longer is one.
Generate student credit hours strategically by offering large nonmajor principles courses, saving small classes for majors. (Example: a 200-seat Principles of Poetry class rather than 10 poetry workshops for the same number of students.) You will produce the same number of credit hours while reducing sections. And if your principles classes are good enough, you’ll recruit new majors.
Assess each course annually in your department to see if it emphasizes competencies or advances innovation and degree progress. If not, revise or eliminate it.
Work with deans to change promotion and tenure requirements that encourage curricular development, which often inspires unneeded courses, and instead promote curricular enhancement. (Example: adding a digital aspect to an existing class is considered enhancement.)
Faculty senates can also help in the effort. They can:
Create a curriculum policy for every academic unit outlining what each department should and should not be teaching. (Example: journalism creates content for a mass audience. Communication studies does not.) Departments need to stop duplicating each other’s classes in the competition for seats. A senate policy designating pedagogical areas is a shared governance way of doing so.
Create a Faculty Senate curriculum council that requires strictly adhered-to paperwork before any new course is approved. (Example: mandate sign-off by the faculty of another department for any related course work in addition to an impact statement documenting how the proposed course will affect student degree progress, the teaching budget and colleagues’ workload.) The council can reject or sanction new courses according to the assigned pedagogical area (No. 1 above).
In the end, we can wish for an academic environment in which public support continues to underwrite existing practices. We can post invectives on social media about administrative hiring or salaries, believing our opinions will inspire change. We can blame political parties, entitled students, helicopter parents, corporate interference or any number of excuses or justifications for the state of affairs.
Or we can understand the impact of curriculum on innovation as well as on practically every aspect of the higher education budget, take responsibility and do something about it.