The editorial pages of The New York Times seem to have become the destination of choice for people who want to say uninformed things about American higher education. Let me rephrase that slightly: They have become the destination of choice for people who want to say uninformed things that are designed to get readers angry at American higher education, which I presume is why The Times keeps them coming. In today’s America, anger sells.
Though this receptivity to misleading opinion pieces has been around at The Times for a while, it seems in recent months to be building to some sort of crescendo. On April 4 of this year, the paper published “The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much” by Paul Campos. According to Campos, the “real reason” boils down to generous government subsidies and bloated administrations. These are longstanding talking points that are unsubstantiated by any evidence. Believe it or not, there are people who actually study this stuff, and there is evidence compiled by economists and others that explains the rise in college costs. None of that is in Campos’s opinion piece, and none of it confirms his conclusions. (I would recommend Why Does College Cost So Much? by Robert Archibald and David Feldman to those who want a thoughtful answer to the question.)
On May 20 the paper published “Platinum Pay in Ivory Towers” by Frank Bruni. I am a fan of Bruni’s work, but he seems to have lost some of his usual good judgment when it comes to the subject of colleges and universities. This particular piece expressed ire at the $8.5 million payout by Yale University to its recently retired president, Richard Levin.
It is fair to find such a sum outrageous. It is less fair to move to Bruni’s conclusion that “the lofty pay of college presidents is part of higher education’s increasingly corporate bent, of the blurred lines between the campus and the marketplace.” Using the example of how a university with many billions of dollars chooses to spend several million as the basis of generalizations about American higher education is like using Warren Buffett as an example of the typical American investor. The latest data from the College and University Association for Human Resources show that the median salary for research university presidents is about $450,000, with most other sectors not coming close to that, and community college presidents having a median salary of $188,000. By comparison, a 2012 study showed the average salary of a partner in a large American law firm to be $681,000. There are far more law partners than college presidents in America.
The nadir of this trend was reached on June 6, with the publication of “Why I Defaulted on My Student Loans,” by the journalist Lee Siegel. Siegel is the author of four books and a contributor to publications including Harper’s, The New Republic and The New Yorker. I assume he makes a living. He is proud of having defaulted on his loans, which he took out, he says, in order to attend “a small private liberal arts college.” If his online biography is correct, Siegel went on to receive three degrees from Columbia University.
It is hard to know how properly to describe Siegel’s piece. One might begin with self-centered, condescending and poorly reasoned. He accepts no responsibility for having chosen a private college over a less expensive public option in the first place; he finds offensive the notion that he might have had to take a job that he found less than true to his “particular usefulness to society” -- which was to write smart things -- in order to pay off his debts. He finds the entire notion of repaying a debt for the receipt of a benefit a “social arrangement that is legal, but not moral.” He encourages others to follow his sterling example.
All this would be easy to dismiss as a colossal display of arrogance and irresponsibility were it not for the imprimatur of respectability bestowed by The Times. I understand the fact that the views expressed on an opinion page do not reflect those of the paper or its editors. But I also believe that those editors have a responsibility to act as, well, editors, and to publish pieces that meet a certain standard of thoughtfulness and stand at least within spitting distance of the facts. It saddens me that the newspaper that is ostensibly the gold standard of American journalism seems to be taking its lead from angry blogs.
I’m thinking of submitting an opinion piece to The Times entitled “College Causes Cancer.” I don’t have any facts to support the claim, but apparently that doesn’t matter, and the title is catchy as hell.
Brian Rosenberg is president of Macalester College.
National poll gives low marks to the college selection process, with parents saying institutions aren't doing enough to place graduates in jobs and the value of degrees has dropped sharply over the past decade.
In a shocking result in the 2015 British elections, Prime Minister David Cameron won re-election and returned to Number 10 Downing Street with a slim yet outright majority in the House of Commons. An election that, due to the rise of traditionally minor nationalist parties just weeks earlier, was heralded as the end of the two-party system ended with a victory for one of the two major parties.
Unlike in so many elections, higher education policy positions were a topic of great debate this year, providing major and minor parties alike the opportunity to share their visions for the future of British higher education. The lessons of the 2015 British election not only provide a fantastic microcosm of the past five years of British politics, but also have great implications for the 2016 presidential race in the United States.
Among higher education policy issues in the United Kingdom in the past decade, perhaps no issue has gained more media attention than tuition (frequently called fees in Britain). Labour governments under Tony Blair introduced tuition and fees to the UK higher education system for the first time in 1998, and increased the £1,000 ($1,548) tuition cap to £3,000 ($4,647) in 2004. In 2009, it became clear that universities needed increased funding. John Browne, formerly the head of the energy company BP, chaired a commission that examined higher education and eventually advocated for no tuition caps and increasing the availability of student loans.
In 2010, public disapproval of the Labour government was high, and for those voters who didn’t approve of the Tories, either, the Liberal Democrats provided an alternative. Youth voters were drawn to the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and his pledge not to raise tuition, and voted for the party in droves. No party won a majority in Parliament, so the Liberal Democrats and Tories joined forces in a coalition government. As junior partners in the Conservative-led governing coalition, the Liberal Democrats tried to serve as a moderating force -- a goal that ultimately proved unsuccessful when they went back on their pledge and voted for a Tory proposal to increase the tuition cap to £9,000.
The Liberal Democrats paid dearly for not following through on their no tuition increases pledge. In a nationally televised appearance on a question and answer show, Clegg was asked by an audience member, “Your promise on student loans has destroyed your reputation -- why would we believe anything else you say?”
The tuition flip-flop had the same effect on Clegg that the “Read my lips: No new taxes” pledge had on President George H. W. Bush -- it provided ammunition for opponents of the Liberal Democrats, and cast doubt on Clegg’s trustworthiness. The raise of fees, seen as a Tory policy, also built upon the opposition narrative that Clegg and the Liberal Democrats weren’t doing enough to stave off the unpopular austerity measures the majority Conservative government wanted to enact. By election night, the Liberal Democrats’ image was so badly damaged that they were reduced to 8 seats from 57. Of those eight members of Parliament, four had broken party ranks and voted against the tuition increases.
Similarities in party platforms with regard to higher education also dramatically changed the outcome of the election, as differentiation in policies shed some spotlight on traditionally minor parties. The Labour and Conservative parties proposed very similar research funding and tech transfer policies. The Tories called for university enterprise zones that would connect university research with potential entrepreneurs and spin-off businesses in the mold of Silicon Valley or North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park. Labour proposed “knowledge clusters” much the same way -- areas where universities would build ties with industry.
The two parties also stated that they were committed to maintaining research funding, but provided few specifics as to how they would do so. The Liberal Democrats were the only major party to differ in these areas, actually calling for greater investment in research funding and changes to employment law that would allow university students from abroad the ability to stay in the U.K. after graduation to contribute to the knowledge economy of the country. Yet, because of the party’s history on switching positions on tuition, many felt the differing ideas were unattainable in a coalition government at best, and dishonest at worst.
Such similarities among the major parties wouldn’t normally make a major difference in an election outcome, but traditionally minor parties used the similarities to their advantage. The Scottish National Party argued that the Labour Party had lost sight of its socialist roots and become too much like the Conservative party. Any similar policies between the two main parties, especially in the wake of the Scottish independence referendum in which both parties worked together to defeat the SNP, played directly into the SNP’s narrative.
In the one area where Labour and the Tories disagreed -- tuition caps -- Scottish voters paid no attention. Labour’s proposed cap reduction from £9,000 to £6,000 fell on deaf ears north of Hadrian’s Wall, as the SNP had already provided free tuition and fees for Scottish students at Scottish universities through legislation at the regional level. When Scottish voters tried to determine which party had the best chance of success in breaking up the perceived Labour-Tory policy monopoly, they had to choose between the Liberal Democrats with their poor track record on tuition fees or the party that brought free higher education to Scotland.
The Scots weren’t the only minor party to take advantage of higher education policy to build their own agenda. The pro-environment Green Party promised to erase all student debt and cap pay for the highest earners at large firms like universities at 10 times that of the lowest wage earner. Plaid Cymru, a Welsh nationalist party, dedicated to eventual independence for Wales, argued for a work visa program for foreign students similar to that of the Liberal Democrats to ensure the continued economic health of the Welsh aerospace and electronics industries.
On the opposite end of the political spectrum, the far-right U.K. Independence Party used differentiation in its higher education platform to draw attention to its main political goal of leaving the European Union. UKIP, virulently opposed to E.U. membership and patently anti-immigration, proposed a tuition policy for students from outside of the U.K. that could only be achieved if the United Kingdom were to leave the E.U. Students from abroad, even those from fellow E.U. countries, would have to pay higher tuition fees than domestic students, a policy that is illegal under European Union law.
Higher education policies became a way for minor parties to differentiate themselves from the “business as usual” candidates, and some were quite successful in that effort.
The lessons of the 2015 U.K. election certainly apply to next year’s U.S. presidential election. While the rise of a Texas national party or complete implosion of the Democratic Party seems highly unlikely, presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle are likely to use their positions on higher education issues in ways that fit with the personal narrative they try to present. Governor Scott Walker has already channeled the Tory government with his proposed cuts to the University of Wisconsin. He cites this austerity measure as an example of his commitment to fiscal stability and a low-taxes government. Expect Marco Rubio to tout the bipartisan work he has done with Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden as an example of the ways in which he rises above traditional partisan politics -- not exactly the same as creating a third party, but not particularly different in its purpose, either.
Presidential candidates should look to the minority parties of the United Kingdom for guidance on how to energize voters. Rand Paul’s proposed elimination of the Department of Education will certainly energize his base the same way UKIP energizes theirs through discussion of tuition policies in a Britain free of the European Union. Bernie Sanders’s belief that higher education should be a right, and that higher education should be free, has more in common with the stated policy positions of the SNP in Scotland than the Democrats in the United States. Those positions, however, will invigorate many of the left-wing youth of the Democratic Party and could greatly increase turnout even if Senator Sanders isn’t on the ballot in November of 2016.
Finally, presidential candidates should also heed the lessons of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. Going back on promises related to higher education could result in dramatic losses in the next election. While many voters won’t consider the state of their local university on election day, a high profile flip-flop on higher education could indicate a level of dishonesty to which no re-election-seeking politician would ever want to ascribe.
Christopher R. Marsicano is a Ph.D. student in leadership and policy studies with a focus in higher education policy at Vanderbilt University.
America and much of the world have been transfixed by recent events in Baltimore. What’s most important, however, comes after the cameras leave.
More than 50 years ago, Americans also were riveted as dogs and fire hoses were unleashed on the marching children of Birmingham, Ala. Participating in that march was the most terrifying experience of my life. Even so, it was not the hardest.
The toughest experiences came in the next 50 years, working to change the educational and socioeconomic systems that still exclude far too many Americans from real opportunity. At my university, students and staff work every day with hundreds of inner-city teenagers who are first-time offenders, providing them with guidance around the clock. These children and so many more need our support now more than ever.
As one of my students said to me recently, the Baltimore story -- which is the American story -- should remind us that issues related to poverty and inequality, crime and opportunity are not about “those people.” They are about us -- all of us.
How we react to events like those in Baltimore speaks volumes about our values. We know we must do much better, especially for people who have not had a chance to thrive in our society. Americans -- not just in Baltimore but across the country -- have an opportunity now to ask difficult questions and take long-term action.
Universities have an especially critical role to play as community anchors, educators and researchers. A quote from a 1923 edition of The Daily Princetonian sums up our responsibility as aptly today as it did the day it was penned: "We are almost the only section of the population which has the leisure and opportunity to study the controversial questions of the day without bias, and to act accordingly. The power of today is in our hands.”
The future will depend heavily on universities -- not only the policies we shape but the leaders we produce. Historically, one of America’s greatest strengths has been our ability to look squarely at our problems and to make hard changes. To do so often requires struggle, and we have a responsibility to embrace that struggle. To do so is a fundamental part of the learning and growing process -- and it is fundamental to changing issues of systemic injustice and inequality that are neither new nor isolated.
We have made tremendous progress since the 1960s; the fact that I can write this as the African-American president of a predominantly white university is testament to that. But recent events have reminded us just how uneven opportunity, power and justice in this country remain.
At a recent campus forum, one professor contrasted the quick disaster of a riot to the slow disaster of Freddie Gray’s neighborhood -- a site impacted by failed public and private policies since the 1930s. That slow, devastating deterioration, combined with the heightened effects of discrimination during the War on Drugs, boiled over into the West Baltimore riots on April 25.
Our responsibility as educators is to help our students -- young citizens and voters, future leaders and parents -- understand the context of recent events. The liberal arts, especially the humanities and social sciences, are powerful tools for shedding light on the challenges we face in this country. Universities must serve as models -- and actual spaces -- for talking about sticky issues of race, inequality, authority and fairness. How do we eliminate inequity if we don’t even know how to talk about it?
We recently started a program on campus to coach first-year students in intercultural communication. While the INTERACT program is completely voluntary, it reaches students who would not naturally gravitate toward such programming, often because they grew up in communities dominated by a single race or class and are uncomfortable interacting with peers different from themselves. Upperclassmen serve as peer recruiters and promote the program on their residence hall floors and in casual encounters, rather than just at multicultural events or among groups focused on diversity.
Many of my students first confront issues of race or class when they work at one of our partner schools in Baltimore. Whatever their race or background, our students often see themselves in their younger counterparts, but they also recognize that they have advantages these children have never had. Too few Americans understand what children in such circumstances experience long before they reach their teenage years.
Universities need to create more opportunities for students to connect with people in circumstances vastly different from their own and to relate what they’re learning in classes about justice, politics, economics and history to real work in the community. Our BreakingGround initiative, which works closely with the national American Democracy Project, does just that. Through the initiative, engineering students have built models of water infrastructure for the city of Baltimore, English students have performed research and service to advance childhood literacy, and American studies students have documented the proud history and decline of the industrial neighborhood of Sparrows Point.
Other students, recent alums and staff members work with hundreds of first-time offenders through our Choice program, a community-based initiative that supports and empowers youth through a host of services. Recently the program has been bringing together youths and police officers for structured conversations and the joint creation of a tile mosaic for a public space. Such initiatives build trust between communities and police and can, ultimately, save lives.
But even with abundant opportunities for engagement, students often have to be pushed to get beyond their comfort zones. Even at UMBC, where students from all walks of life and more than 100 countries study alongside one another, we have to work to get people to talk openly about race and socioeconomic differences. I often wonder if universities are doing enough. We are having renewed conversations on our campus about how we can deepen our ties to the community and keep issues of inequality and inequity at the forefront of our teaching and service.
I know we must remain vigilant. The limelight will predictably fade, but the challenges will not. The power of today is in our hands.