Flagship publics

Hogan's rocky tenure at Connecticut hinted at potential problems at Illinois

Smart Title: 

U. of Illinois president's departure does not shock critics, who wonder why the university picked him after a rocky presidency at the U. of Connecticut.

Indiana revamps performance funding, focusing on first-year completion

Smart Title: 

Indiana revises its performance-funding formula, putting new emphasis on progress toward degree, but not all institutions see an equal shot at the money.

Tea Party groups expect influence in elections for Michigan's public university governing boards

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Tea Party groups expect to influence statewide elections to pick new members of Michigan's higher education governing boards.

Calling Out 'Coasters' or Name-Calling?

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A former adviser to the University of Texas Board of Regents who is aligned with controversial reforms that have been touted by conservative groups and Governor Rick Perry issued a report Tuesday identifying what he called a “faculty productivity gap” at the two chief research institutions in the state.

Accountability, Improvement and Money

Unfortunately, some of us are old enough to have passed through various incarnations of the accountability movement in higher education. Periodically university people or their critics rediscover the notion of accountability, as if the notion of being accountable to students, parents, legislators, donors, federal agencies, and other institutional constituencies were something new and unrecognized by our colleagues. We appear to have entered another cycle, signaled by the publication last month of a call to action by the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) association, with support from the Ford Foundation, called "Accountability for Better Results."

The SHEEO report has the virtue of recognizing many of the reasons why state-level accountability systems fail, and focuses its attention primarily on the issue of access and graduation rates. While this is a currently popular and important topic, the SHEEO report illustrates why the notion of "accountability" by itself has little meaning. Universities and colleges have many constituencies, consumers, funding groups, interested parties, and friends. Every group expects the university to do things in ways that satisfy their goals and objectives, and seek "accountability" from the institution to ensure that their priorities drive the university’s performance. While each of these widely differentiated accountability goals may be appropriate for each group, the sum of these goals do not approach anything like "institutional accountability."

Accountability has special meaning in public universities where it usually signifies a response to the concerns of state legislators and other public constituencies that a campus is actually producing what the state wants with the money the state provides. This is the most common form of accountability, and often leads to accountability systems or projects that attempt to put all institutions of higher education into a common framework to ensure the wise expenditure of state money on the delivery of higher education products to the people.

In this form, accountability is usually a great time sink with no particular value, although it has the virtue of keeping everyone occupied generating volumes of data of dubious value in complex ways that will exhaust the participants before having any useful impact. The SHEEO report is particularly clear on this point.  

This form of accountability has almost no practical utility because state agencies cannot accurately distinguish one institution of higher education from the other for the purposes of providing differential funding. If the state accountability system does not provide differential funding for differential performance, then the exercise is more in the nature of an intense conversation about what good things the higher education system should be doing rather than a process for creating a system that could actually hold institutions accountable for their performance.  

Public agencies rarely hold institutions accountable because to do so requires that they punish the poor performers or at least reward the good performers. No institution wants a designation as a poor performer. An institution with problematic performance characteristics as measured by some system will mobilize every political agent at its disposal (local legislators, powerful alumni and friends, student advocates, parents) to modify the accountability criteria to include sufficient indicators on which they can perform well.

In response to this political pressure, and to accommodate the many different kinds, types and characteristics of institutions, the accountability system usually ends up with 20, 30 or more accountability measures. No institution will do well on all of them, and every institution will do well on many of them, so in the end, all institutions will qualify as reasonably effective to very effective, and all will remain funded more or less as before.

The lifecycle of this process is quite long and provides considerable opportunity for impassioned rhetoric about how well individual institutions serve their students and communities, how effective the research programs are in enhancing economic development, how valuable the public service activities enhance the state, and so on. At the end, when most participants have exhausted their energy and rhetoric, and when the accountability system has achieved stasis, everyone will declare a victory and the accountability impulse will go dormant for several years until rediscovered again.  

Often, state accountability systems offer systematic data reporting schemes with goals and targets defined in terms of improvement, but without incentives or sanctions. These systems assume that the value of measuring alone will motivate institutions to improve to avoid being marked as ineffective. This kind of system has value in identifying the goals and objectives of the state for its institutions, but often relegates the notion of accountability to the reporting of data rather than the allocation of money, where it could make a significant difference. 

If an institution, state, or other entity wants to insist on improved performance from universities, they must specify the performance they seek and then adjust state appropriations to reward those who meet or exceed the established standard. Reductions in state budgets for institutions that fail to perform are rare for obvious political reasons, but the least effective system is one that allocates funds to poorly performing institutions with the expectation that the reward for poor performance will motivate improvement. One key to effective performance improvement, reinforced in the SHEEO report, is strictly limiting the number of key indicators for measuring improvement.  If the number of indicators exceeds 10, the exercise is likely to find all institutions performing well on some indicator and therefore all deserving of continued support.

Differing Directions

Often the skepticism that surrounds state accountability systems stems from a mismatch between the goals of the state (with an investment of perhaps 30 percent or less of the institutional budget) and those of the institutions. Campuses may seek nationally competitive performance in research, teaching, outreach, and other activities. States may seek improvement in access and student graduation rates as the primary determinants of accountability. Institutions may see the state’s efforts as detracting from the institution’s drive toward national reputation and success. Such mismatches in goals and objectives often weaken the effectiveness of state accountability programs. 

Universities are very complex and serve many constituencies with many different expectations about the institutions’ activities. Improvement comes from focusing carefully on particular aspects of an institution’s performance, identifying reliable and preferably nationally referenced indicators, and then investing in success. While the selection of improvement goals and the development of good measures are essential, the most important element in all improvement programs is the ability to move money to reward success.

If an accountability system only measures improvement and celebrates success, it will produce a warm glow of short duration. Performance improvement is hard work and takes time, while campus budgets change every year. Effective measurement is often time consuming and sometimes difficult, and campus units will not participate effectively unless there is a reward. The reward that all higher education institutions and their constituent units understand is money. This is not necessarily money reflected in salary increases, although that is surely effective in some contexts.

Primarily what motivates university improvement, however, is the opportunity to enhance the capacity of a campus. If a campus teaches more students, and as a result earns the opportunity to recruit additional faculty members, this financial reward is of major significance and will motivate continued improvement. At the same time, the campus that seeks improvement cannot reward failure. If enrollment declines, the campus should not receive compensatory funding in hopes of future improvement. Instead, a poorly performing campus should work harder to get better so it too can earn additional support.

In public institutions, the small proportion of state funding within the total budget limits the ability of state systems to influence campus behavior by reallocating funding. In particular, in many states, most of the public money pays for salaries, and reallocating funds proves difficult. Nonetheless, most public systems and legislatures can identify some funds to allocate as a reward for improved performance.
Even relatively small budget increases represent a significant reward for campus achievements.

Accountability, as the SHEEO report highlights, is a word with no meaning until we define the measures and the purpose. If we mean accountability to satisfy public expectations for multiple institutions on many variables, we can expect that the exercise will be time consuming and of little practical impact. If we mean accountability to improve the institution’s performance in specific ways, then we know we need to develop a few key measures and move at least some money to reward improvement. 

Author/s: 
John V. Lombardi
Author's email: 
lombardi@umass.edu

John V. Lombardi, chancellor and professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, writes Reality Check every two weeks. Scott McLemee's column, Intellectual Affairs, will return Thursday.

Admissions: Worse Than Ever

Our younger child just finished the college admissions sweepstakes. He got into one of his top choice schools, but he says he feels more unburdened than proud. Now he can get on with his life, enjoying the things he loves to do. He no longer has to worry about marketing his “admissions package,” as if he were the latest toothpaste or laundry detergent. 

Our family last went through the admissions experience eight years ago when our older child applied to college. Although he ended up at one of the “hot” Ivy League universities, we sadly concluded that the selective college admissions process had no redeeming social value. You just lived through it, hoped your child survived unscathed, and prepared to hand over your bank account.  

Unfortunately, it has gotten worse since then. More than ever, higher education seems like a commodity, as selective colleges market themselves shamelessly, increase applicant demand, and manage enrollments as if they were commercial enterprises. And, in response, an industry of expensive services and consultants to teach applicants how to game the admissions system is booming. Uncalculated is the toll on students, integrity and fundamental fairness.

This time around, college planning started just before ninth grade, when the college counselor at our son’s school met with parents and students to advise on the importance of course selection over the next four years. The message was to take diverse and challenging courses if you hope to get into a selective college -- loosely defined as the top 50 colleges and universities in the U.S. News & World Report annual survey. No big deal: Anyone who is interested in a rigorous liberal arts education for their child would probably take this advice anyway.  

Then came 10th grade’s pre-pre-college admissions testing regimen: the PSAT, given by the College Board, and the PLAN, from ACT Inc.  This was to get students ready to take the same tests again in 11th grade, to get them ready to take the tests that count big time in college admissions, the SAT and ACT.  Although originally devised as alternatives, counselors now tell students to take both the SAT and the ACT and submit the score of the one they do best on. These tests are in addition to at least three SAT II  “achievement” tests and, of course, a battery of Advanced Placement exams for those rigorous courses they are counseled to take. Pile on top of these the now de rigueur SAT and ACT review courses -- at, not incidentally, anywhere from $700 to $3,000 a pop.  

Our son, a motivated student with top grades and a challenging academic program, is a very good, but not spectacular, standardized test-taker. Friends with children at other schools told us that kids had to have 1500 SAT’s to be in the admissions hunt at top-echelon colleges. Looking at the median test scores published by colleges and information services all over the Internet, this notion did not seem completely off-base. But even if it meant going to a lesser member of the “nifty 50” group of colleges, our son eschewed review courses on the grounds that he already had a heavy schedule and would rather read some good books than spend hours taking boring SAT or ACT prep classes. Obviously, we had done something right in his education, but we were definitely out of the mainstream.  

He opted not to take the SAT at all, and ended up scoring in the 99th percentile on the ACT after doing some test prep at home on his own. This he was proud of, because, as he said, he isn’t a wiz at standardized tests, and he didn’t take an expensive prep course. I suppose it was a kind of reverse snobbery (“anyone can do well if they take a prep course, but I did it on my own”) and a real sign of the times in the selective college admissions world.  

Fate was cruel to him in other ways. The night before the first AP exam in his junior year, he developed golf-ball-sized lymph nodes all over his neck and groin that looked suspiciously like lymphoma. It took four days to determine that he had mono, not cancer. This scare did put the whole college admissions lunacy in perspective for us.  

On the other hand, our son endured AP and SAT II exams while suffering from mono. Now he had a new dilemma. Does he tell colleges he took the exams while sick? Does he take tests over in the fall?  No matter how well he did, would he have done better if he had not had mono? In the end, he decided to accept fate. He did reasonably well on the tests, there were limits to how much of his life he was prepared to devote to getting into the “perfect” college, and he did not like making excuses, even good ones.

Our son’s college application experience was tame compared to children of a lot of upwardly mobile, well-educated, Baby Boom parents. For starters, the popularity of private “college consultants,” notwithstanding their ludicrous fees, took us by surprise. One family we know had a consultant on retainer from the time the child was in seventh grade. This was in addition to the cost of SAT prep courses and the professional editor for the college essay. The total bill for these services was more than $30,000.  

An acquaintance we bumped into at a wedding last summer informed us she had just opened a private college consulting business, having recently retired from her position as a highly successful college counselor at an elite prep school. She offers a four-year package for about $15,000, or the college-application-only option for the all-important senior year for about $5,000. Her phone was ringing off the hook. Could this possibly be worth the extraordinary expense?

More important, what message does it send to children about their worth and competence when we act as if the only way they can make it into a selective college is to hire high-priced help to package and market them? Is the admissions prize worth this psychological price? As bad, are we raising a generation of young cynics?

Looking for Help

A quick Internet search revealed no shortage of expensive, fear-mongering consultants to guide students and their families through what they imply is the mine field of selective college admissions.  After reading these sites, we wondered if a mere mortal could possibly fill out an application for an elite college, never mind actually get in. I went to Amazon.com and did a search for books on college admissions. The first book that turned up was A is for Admission; the Insider’s Guide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges (Warner Books, 1999), the controversial, tell-all exposé of selective college admissions by Michelle A. Hernandez. Hernandez is a former Ivy League admissions officer who now has -- you guessed it -- a college consulting business. I ordered the book and read it cover to cover.  

She confirmed what our older son had learned from an admissions office friend at his Ivy League university: You are lucky if an admissions reader devotes 15 minutes to the application your child labored over for months. It might even be more like 10 minutes. Hernandez also explained how, by calculating a so-called “academic index,” the selective college admissions office will reduce your child’s entire high school career to one number, weighted heavily in favor of standardized tests. The book had the ring of truth, not the least because it confirmed my by-now-cynical view of the selective college admissions process.  

Hernandez also instructed how to play the admissions game, with specific coaching like: play down economic advantages; play up work experience, especially hard manual labor; show long-term passion about a few things; choose teachers for recommendations who you know can write with style; and most importantly (was this tongue-in-cheek?) be yourself. Her follow-on volume, Acing the College  Application: How to Maximize Your Chances for Admission to the College of Your Choice, was prescriptive about how to fill out an application, including how to do the “brag sheet,” the list of activities and interests that is required in the Common Application  now used by most colleges.

Of course, her example of a brag sheet, taken from one of her clients, made the applicant sound like a combination of Albert Schweitzer and Steven Spielberg. If this was the competition, it was very discouraging. Her advice on college interviews was sensible and contained a list of common interview questions. (Spot on, according to our son, after having gone through six interviews.) You can retain Ms. Hernandez for what is undoubtedly thousands of dollars, or you can buy the books for a total of about $25. We chose the cheap alternative.  

One of the great eye-openers in the college admissions experience was the amount of disingenuousness involved in writing the college essay. Our son’s school spends a few weeks in English class early in the senior year working on crafting personal essays in order to prepare for college applications, so we naively assumed that students wrote their own college essays.

Not necessarily. As we spoke to parents in other places who had lived through the senior year with their children, we personally came to know of a father who wrote his daughter’s college essay, a father who had his son’s college essay written by an employee of the father’s business, and parents who hired professional editors or writers to “help” with the college essay. The worst part is that in every case, these children got into their first choice schools.  

We live in a small town in upstate New York and thought we were immune to what we viewed as these metro-area ethical challenges. Wrong again. The summer before our son’s senior year, we received a glossy brochure from a professional writer in our town. He has gone into the business of helping students to “find their voices” in the “all important” college essay, a service for which he charges the mere pittance of $1,500. Isn’t your child’s future worth it? There seems to be so much deception in college essay writing, I have come to the conclusion that essays should be eliminated from applications in favor of a personal essay question administered in a controlled environment by the College Board or  ACT and forwarded by them to colleges. Ironically, I never imagined I would find myself advocating for yet another college admissions test.  

The same family that spent more than $30,000 on college consultants claimed that the college counseling staff at their well-regarded country day school advised that if the family was of a charitable bent, the application year would be a good time to make a significant donation to their child’s first-choice college. The family said they pledged half a million. An old friend who has been on the faculty of an elite liberal arts college in New England for a quarter century confirmed that over the past five years it has become well known that a contribution of $500,000 to $1 million to a selective college can secure a spot in the class for a student who is academically qualified.

Since 90 percent of applicants to such colleges are academically qualified and most of them are not admitted, the wealthy who are prepared to be generous at the right time appear to be able to buy admission for their children. Off the record, some selective college administrators we know demur that you have to pledge to rebuild the library in order to influence an admissions decision. Whatever the price, the dirty little secret seems to be that admission is for sale in what sounds like a pretty straight-forward, if expensive, transaction.   

Toward the end of our son’s wait to hear from colleges, he had a nightmare that notification finally came but merely said, “No conclusion.” Did it mean he was consigned to college admissions purgatory forever? This was a fate worse than death. Happily, he awoke and was eventually admitted. Just as happily, we will never have to live through this experience again.

But we cannot help wondering if the selective college admissions process is losing integrity with every passing year. Reading thousands of applications at ten or fifteen minutes apiece, can admissions officers really see through anything but the most obvious and overblown applicant marketing? How can we believe their universal representation that each application is carefully reviewed? And what happens to families whose children go to schools with under-staffed and overburdened guidance offices and who cannot afford private college consultants, clever essay editors, test prep courses and mammoth charitable contributions?

These questions raise issues of fairness that go far beyond the current debates about affirmative action. Let’s hope the colleges are trying to answer them.  

Author/s: 
Deirdre Henderson
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Deirdre Henderson is a mother and lawyer who lives in upstate New York.

Conflicting Interests

The details of accreditation are so arcane and complex that the entire topic is confusing and controversial throughout all of education. When we're immersed in the details of accreditation, it's often exceedingly difficult to see the forest for all the trees. But at the core, accreditation is a very simple concept: Accreditation is a process of self-regulation that exists solely to serve the public interest.

When I say "public interest" I mean the interests of three overlapping but identifiably distinct groups:

  • The interests of members of the general public in their own personal health, safety, and economic well-being.
  • The interests of government and elected officials at all levels in assuring wise and effective use of taxpayer dollars.
  • The consumer interests of students and their families in "getting what they pay for" -- certifications in their chosen fields that genuinely qualify them for employment and for practicing their professions competently and honestly.

Saying that a particular program or degree or institution is "accredited" should and must convey to these publics strong assurance that it meets acceptable minimum standards of quality and integrity.

Aside from the public interest, what other interests are there? Well, there are the interests of the accredited institutions, the interests of existing professional practitioners and their industry groups, and the interests of the accrediting organizations themselves. There is no automatic assurance that these latter interests are always and everywhere consistent with the public interest, so self-regulation (accreditation) necessarily involves consistent and vigilant management of this inherent conflict of interest. It is an inherent conflict because the general public, the government, and the students do not have the technical expertise to set curricular and other educational standards and monitor compliance.

I assume it is generally agreed that it is inconceivable to have anyone other than medical professionals defining the necessary elements and performance standards of medical education. Does the American Medical Association do a good job of protecting the public from fraud and incompetence? Yes, for the most part. But you don't need to talk to very many people to hear cynicism. It is the worst behaviors and the lowest standards of professional competence that create this cynicism, and that taints all doctors as well as the AMA. That is why our standards at the bottom or threshold level are so very important.
I submit to that the bedrock principle and the highest priority for everyone involved in higher education (the institutions, the professional groups, the accrediting organizations, and those who recognize or certify the accreditors) should be and must be to manage these conflicts of interest in ways that are transparent, and that place the public interest ahead of our own several self-interests.

If I could draw an analogy: Think about why the names Enron and WorldCom are so familiar. Publicly owned corporations must open their books to independent accounting firms that are expected to examine them and issue reports assuring the public that acceptable financial reporting and business practices are being followed, and warning the public when they are not. But there is an inherent conflict of interest in this process: The companies being audited are the customers of the accounting firms. This presents an apparent disincentive to look too closely or report too diligently lest the accounting firms lose clients to other firms who are more willing to apply loose standards. Obviously, this conflict was not well-managed by the accounting industry and, as a result, one of the world's largest and previously most respected accounting firms no longer exists, and all U.S. corporations (honest and otherwise) are saddled with an extraordinarily complex and expensive set of new government regulations.

If we don't manage our conflicts well, rest assured one or more of our publics -- the students, the government, or the public at large - will rise up and take care of it for us in ways that will be expensive, burdensome, poorly designed, and counterproductive. That would be in no one's best interest - ironically, not even in the public's best interest.

I must acknowledge that our current system of self-regulation is, by and large, working very well, just as most accounting firms and most companies are, and always have been, honest. Some of us, especially in the public sector of higher education, wonder how much more accountability we could possibly stand, and what, if any, value-added there could possibly be if more were imposed on us. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, for example, we offer 409 differently named degrees -- 136 majors at the bachelor's level, 156 at the master's level, 109 at the Ph.D. level, and 8 professional degrees, 7 of which carry the term "doctor," a point I will return to later.

By Board of Regents policy, every one of our degree programs gets a thorough review at least every 10 years, so we are conducting about 40 program reviews every year, and one full cycle of reviews involves just about every academic official on campus. These internal reviews carry negligible out-of-pocket cost, but conservatively consume about 20 FTE of people's time annually. We are also required by the legislature to report annually on a long list of performance indicators that includes things like time-to-degree, access and affordability, and graduation rates, among many other things. In addition, about 100 of our degree programs are accredited by 32 different special accreditors and, of course, the entire university is accredited by the North Central Association. One complete cycle of these accreditations costs about $5,000,000 and the equivalent of 35 FTE of year-round effort. (Annualized, it is about $850,000 and 6 FTE).

I mention the costs, not to complain about these reviews as expensive burdens, but to emphasize that we put a great deal of real money and real effort into self-examination and accountability. Far from being a burden, accreditation and self-study reviews form the central core of our institutional strategic planning and quality improvement programs. The major two-year-long self-study we do for our North Central accreditation, in particular, forms the entire basis for the campus strategic plan, priorities, goals, and quality improvements we adopt for the next 10-year period. As such, it is the most important and valuable exercise we undertake in any 10-year period, and we honestly and sincerely attribute most of the improvements we've made in recent decades to things learned in these intensive self-studies. I think all public universities and established private universities could give similar testimony. Having said all this, let me turn, now, to some of the reasons for the growing public cries for better accountability, and some of the problems I think we need to address in our system of self-regulation:

1. Even in the best-performing universities, there is still considerable room for improvement. To mention one high-visibility area, I think it is nothing short of scandalous that, in 2006, the average six-year graduation rate is only around 50 percent nationwide. Either we are doing a disservice to under-prepared or unqualified students by admitting them in the first place, or we are failing perfectly capable students by not giving them the advising and other help they need to graduate. Either way, we are wasting money and human capital inexcusably. Even at universities like mine, where the graduation rate is now 80 percent, if there are peer institutions doing better (and there are), then 80 percent should be considered unacceptably low.

Now, if we were pressured to increase that number quickly to 85 percent or 90 percent and threatened with severe sanctions for failing to do so, we could meet any established goal by lowering our graduation standards, or by fudging our numbers in plausibly defensible ways, or by doing any number of other things that would satisfy our self-interest but fail the public-interest test. Who's to stop us? Well, I submit these are exactly the sorts of conflicts of interest the accrediting organizations should be expected to monitor and resolve in the public interest. The public interest is in a better-educated public, not in superficial compliance with some particular standard. The public relies on accreditors to keep their eye on the right ball. More generally, accrediting organizations are in an excellent -- maybe even unique -- position to identify best practices and transfer them from one colleges to another, improving our entire system of higher education.

2. A second set of problems involves accreditation of substandard or even fraudulent schools and programs. Newspapers have been full of reports of such institutions, many of them operating for years, without necessarily providing a good education to their students. For years, I have listened to the complaints of our deans of education, business, allied health, and some other areas, that "fly-by-night" schools or "motel schools" were competing unfairly with them or giving absurd amounts of credit for impossibly small amounts of work or academic content.

I must admit that I usually dismissed these complaints lightly, telling them they should pay more attention to the quality and value of their own programs, and let free enterprise and competition drive out the low value products. I felt they (our deans) had a conflict of interest, and they wanted someone to enforce a monopoly for them. More recently I have concluded that our deans were, in fact, the only ones paying attention to the public interest. Our schools of education (not the motel schools) are the ones being held responsible for the quality of our K-12 teachers, and they are tired of being told they are turning out an inferior product when shabby but accredited programs are an increasingly large part of the problem. The public school teachers, themselves, have a conflict of interest: They are required to earn continuing education credits from accredited programs, and it is in their interest to satisfy this requirement at the lowest possible cost to themselves. So the quality of the cheapest or quickest credit is of great importance in the public interest, and the only safeguard for that public interest is the vigilance of the accrediting organizations. I lay this problem squarely at the feet of the U.S. Department of Education, the state departments of public instruction, and the education accreditors. They all need to clean up their acts in the public interest.

3. Cost of education. There is currently lots of hand-wringing on the topic of the "cost of education." What is really meant by the hand-wringers is not the cost of education, but the price of education to the students and their families: the fact that tuition rates are inflating at a far faster rate than the CPI. I've made a very important distinction here: the distinction between cost and price. If education were a manufactured product sold to a homogeneous class of customers in a competitive market with multiple providers, then it would be reasonable to assume there is a simple cause-and-effect relationship between cost and price. But that is not the case.

Very few students pay tuition that covers the actual cost of their education. Most students pay far less than the true cost, and some pay far more. In aggregate, the difference is made up by donors (endowment income) at private colleges, and by state taxpayers at public institutions. Since public colleges enroll more than 75 percent of all students, the overall picture -- the price of higher education to students and their parents -- is heavily influenced by what's going on in the public sector, and the picture is not pretty.

In virtually every state in the country, governors and legislators are providing a smaller share of operating funds for higher education than they used to, and partially offsetting the decrease by super-inflationary increases in tuition. They tell themselves this is not hurting higher education because, after all, the resulting tuitions are still much lower than the advertised tuitions at comparable private colleges, so their public institutions are still a "bargain."
This view represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the "private model." Private institutions do not substitute high tuition for state support. They substitute gifts and endowment income for state support, and discount their tuitions to the tune of nearly 50 percent on the average.

There is a very good reason why there are so few large private universities: It is because very few schools can amass the endowments required to make the private model work. Of the 100 largest postsecondary schools in the country, 92 are public, and ALL of the 25 largest institutions are public. There is no way the private model can be scaled up to educate a significant fraction of all the high school graduates in the country. Substituting privately financed endowments for public taxpayer support nationwide would require aggregate endowments totaling $1.3 trillion, or about six times more than the total of all current endowments of public and private colleges and universities in the country. This simply is not going to happen.

So, to the extent that states are pursuing an impossible dream, they are endangering the health and future of our entire system of higher education. Whose responsibility is it to red-flag this situation? Who is responsible for looking out for the overall health of a large, decentralized, diverse public/private system of higher education? When public (or, for that matter, private) colleges point out the hazards of our current trends, they are vulnerable to charges of self-interest. We are accused of waste and inefficiency, and told that we simply need to tighten our belts and become more businesslike.

I don't know of a single university president who wouldn't welcome additional suggestions for genuinely useful efficiencies that have not already been implemented. Is there a legitimate role here for the U.S. Department of Education and the accrediting organizations? To the extent that accrediting organizations take this seriously and use their vast databases of practices and indicators to disseminate best practices nationwide, we would all be better off. Accreditors should be applauding institutions that are on the leading edge of efficiency, and helping, warning, and eventually penalizing waste and inefficiency, all in the spirit of protecting the public interest. Instead, I'm afraid many accreditors are pushing us in entirely different directions.

4. Another category of problem area is what I will call "protectionism." I have already said there is an inherent conflict of interest in that professional experts must be relied upon to define and control access to the professions. This means that the special accreditors have a special burden to demonstrate that their accreditation standards serve the best interests of the public, and not just the interests of the accredited programs or the profession. Chancellors and provosts get more complaints and see more abuses in this area of accreditation than any other. I will start with a hypothetical and then mention only a small sampling of examples.

In Wisconsin, we are under public and legislative pressure to produce more college-educated citizens -- more bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees. Suppose the University of Wisconsin announced next week that any students who completed our 60 credits, or two years, of general education would be awarded a bachelor's degree; that completing two more years in a major would result in a master's degree; and that one year of graduate school would produce a degree entitling the graduate to be called "doctor."

I hope and assume this would be met with outrage. I hope and assume it would result in an uproar among alumni who felt their degrees had been cheapened. I hope and assume it would result in legislative intervention. I even hope and assume it would result in loss of all our accreditations.

That's an extreme example, and most of what I hope and assume would probably happen. But we are already seeing this very phenomenon of degree inflation, and it is being caused by the professions themselves! This is particularly problematic in the health professions, where, it seems, everyone wants to be called "doctor." I have no problem whatsoever with the professional societies and their accreditors telling us what a graduate must know to practice safely and professionally. I have a big problem, though, when they hand us what amounts to a master's-level curriculum and tell us the resulting degree must be called a "doctor of X." This is a transparently self-interested ploy by the profession, and I see no conceivable argument that it is in the public interest. All it does is further confuse an already confusing array of degree names and titles, to no useful purpose.

I asked some of my fellow presidents and chancellors to send me their favorite examples, and I got far too many to include here. Interestingly, and tellingly, most people begged me to hide their institutional identity if I used their examples. I'll let you decide why they might fear being identified. Here are a few:

  • A business accreditor insisting that no other business-related courses may be offered by any other school or college on campus.
  • An allied health program at the bachelor's level (offered at a branch campus of an integrated system) that had to be discontinued because the accreditors decreed they could only offer programs at the bachelor's level if they also offered programs at the master's level at the same campus.
  • An architecture program that was praised for the strength and quality of its curriculum, its graduates, and its placements, and then had its accreditation period halved for a number of trivial resource items such as the sizes of their brand-new drafting tables that had been selected by their star faculty;

Some years ago, the American Bar Association was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Justice for using accreditation in repeated attempts to drive up faculty salaries in law schools.

The Committee on Institutional Cooperation (the Big Ten universities plus the University of Chicago) publishes a brochure suggesting reasonable standards for special accreditation. The suggested standards are common-sense things that any reasonable person would agree protect the public interest while not unreasonably constraining the institution or holding accredited status hostage for increased resources or status when the existing resources and status are clearly adequate. They focus on results rather than inputs or pathways to those results. Similar guidelines have been adopted by other associations of universities.

So, when I was provost, I routinely handed copies of that brochure to site-visit teams when they started their reviews, saying "Please don't tell me this program needs more faculty, more space, higher salaries, or a different reporting line. Just tell me whether or not they are doing a good job and producing exemplary graduates." Inevitably, or at least more often than not, at the exit interview, I heard "This program has a decades-long record of outstanding performance and exemplary graduates, but their continued accreditation is endangered unless they get (some combination of) more faculty, higher salaries, a higher S&E budget, larger offices, more space in general, greater independence, a different reporting line, their own library, a very specific degree for the chair or director, tenure for (whomever), ... etc." Often, the program was put on some form of notice such as interim review with a return visit to check for such improvements.

Aside: It is perfectly natural for the faculty members of site-visit teams to feel a special bond with the colleagues whose program they are evaluating. It is natural for the evaluators to want to "help" these colleagues in what they perceive as the zero-sum resource struggles that occur everywhere. It is also natural for them to want to enhance the status of programs associated with their field. But, resource considerations should be irrelevant to accreditation status unless the resources being provided are demonstrably below the minimum needed to deliver high-quality education and outcomes. Similarly, "status" considerations are out of place unless the current status or reporting line demonstrably harms the students or the public interest. It is the responsibility of the professional staffs of accrediting organizations to provide faculty evaluators with warnings about conflict of interest and guidelines on ethical conduct of the evaluation.

Let me end with one of the most egregious examples I have yet encountered, and a current one from the University of Wisconsin. Our medical school spent more than a year in serious introspection and strategic planning, with special attention on its role in addressing the national crisis in health care costs. What topic could be more front-and-center in the public interest? The medical school faculty and administration concluded (among other things) that it is in the public interest for medical schools to pay more attention to public health and prevention, and try to reduce the need for acute and expensive interventions after preventable illnesses have occurred. To signal this changed emphasis, they voted to change the name of the school from "The School of Medicine" to "The School of Medicine and Public Health." They simultaneously developed a formal public health track for their M.D. curriculum.

I am told that we cannot have this school accredited as a school of public health because the accreditation organization insists that schools of public health must be headed by deans who are distinct from, and at the same organizational level as, deans of medicine. In particular, deans of public health may not be subordinate to, nor the same as, deans of medicine. This, despite the fact that the whole future of medicine may evolve in the direction of public health emphasis, and this may well be in the best interests of the country. Ironically, to the best of my knowledge, our current dean of medicine is the only M.D. on our faculty who holds a commission as an officer in the Public Health Service.

I have used some extreme examples and maybe some extreme characterizations intentionally. Often, important points of principle are best illuminated by extreme cases and examples. If there are any readers who are not offended by anything here, then I have failed.  I hope everyone was offended by at least one thing. I also hope I am provably wrong about some things I've said. But, most of all, I hope to stimulate a vigorous debate on this vitally important topic.

Author/s: 
John D. Wiley
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

John D. Wiley is chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. This essay is a revised version of a talk Wiley gave at the annual meeting of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation.

Saving the Soul of Public Research Universities

Competition among research universities for national ranking increasingly fuels a conflict between peer prestige and public purpose. Governors and legislators rail about public purpose, while professors and administrators rave about peer prestige. Can public research universities pursue both public purpose and peer prestige? (Can the University of Virginia meet the dual directive of its Board of Visitors to raise its proportion of economically disadvantaged students and its U.S. News & World Report ranking among national universities? ) As currently defined, achieving both goals remain an impossible dream, for public purpose is not a byproduct produced automatically while pursuing peer prestige.

Peer prestige suggests high standing in academic circles. Public purpose means serving the collective good. Defining prestige and purpose for state universities is too important to be left either to academics or the public, for each is better at defining wants than determining needs. Universities deliver both ends and means. They represent ends when discovering enduring ideas and insights and means when these discoveries spur innovations and inventions that improve our lives.  Academics and the public must agree on an agenda that embraces both educational and societal needs.

Some leaders of government and business, and increasingly even presidents and professors,  would leave prestige and purpose to the market. But market demands and the public good are not synonymous. Market demands are often short term and respond to individual wants, but public goods are usually long term and reflect collective needs. For example, markets -- through the salaries they generate -- favor physicians in the latest medical specialties, though society needs more primary care doctors and nurses. Markets encourage MBA research scientists, while society desperately needs science and math teachers. Rising markets often mark momentary fads, but public universities must continue critical programs that society needs. The nature of markets is to abandon the old in favor of the new, but higher education while discovering the new, should look for the lasting things in life.

Peer prestige represents the resource and reputation model of excellence, with its trinity of student selectivity, rich resources, and faculty reputations. That model relies mostly on inputs of students, resources, and professors and says little about the public purpose of the quality and quantity of graduates or the contribution of research and services to states and society. It depends more on the resources received than the results achieved and treats campuses like computers as mostly matters of good in, good out.

The resource and reputation model dominates the national rankings of colleges and universities. U.S. News & World Report devotes three quarters of its rating for national universities to this model: peer assessment (25 percent), faculty resources (20 percent), student selectivity (15 percent), spending per student (10 percent), and alumni giving (5 percent). A measure called retention does allocate 20  percent of the total score Unfortunately, on many campuses, retention results reflect admission standards more than improved performance. A criterion on graduation rate performance does control for student preparation and institutional resources, but it receives just 5 percent of the total score.

Public purpose is the defining characteristic of all public universities, but what does it entail? A review of the external demands on state universities reveals a long and daunting list. They must become more accessible to economically and educationally disadvantaged students and enroll a racially diverse student body without setting targets. Their tuition must remain affordable despite declines in state support and inadequate need-based financial aid. They should graduate the great majority of their students -- most of them in four years -- and demonstrate their growth in knowledge and skills from entry to exit. Public universities should actively assist the reform of public schools and produce graduates in critical fields who are prepared mentally and ethically for work and citizenship. Their research and public service should spur the economic growth and civic development of their states and communities.

The answer to the current conflict is not to abandon either peer prestige or public purpose but to broaden the first to cover the public mandate of state universities and to narrow the second to public needs, not wants. State universities should stop competing with private universities on student selectivity. Private universities can become as selective as their markets allow. The mandate of accessibility denies that choice to public universities. State universities should admit a range of undergraduates that past experience shows can succeed on their campuses. Provider-driven institutions will use all of the admission spots to raise their SAT or ACT scores, but public research universities should use some of those places to correct poor preparation that stems from economic disadvantage. Our nation has a growing gap between the prosperous and poor. Great public universities should close rather than reinforce that undemocratic divide. Is the price of a few points on entrance scores at public universities worth the social cost to American society? Can public research universities remain relevant while leaving the issue of equality and accessibility to community colleges and regional universities? Public research  universities should also expand the criteria of prestige by assessing the value added of the knowledge and skills acquired by graduates and the impact of research and service on states and society. Surely, greatness for universities should depend more on what they produce than on what they receive.

All great universities must have a global reach, but public research universities, such as Berkeley, Michigan, and Virginia should also address state and regional problems. They must act locally as well as reach globally. Distance enhances peer prestige, but public purpose requires regional impact.

The time has come for state universities to break the hold of private universities on the hallmark of prestige. Something is radically wrong with college ratings -- such as U.S. News --  that rank 20 private schools before getting to Berkeley. The answer is not for Berkeley to become more like Harvard, but to be an even better Berkeley in fulfilling its public purpose. State university leaders publicly complain about the criteria of the rankings, but privately submit to its measures to raise their ratings.

The National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges should appoint a Commission to develop criteria that reflect both academic quality and public purpose. Its membership should include business, civic, public school, and government leaders, as well as those from higher education. The areas for assessment should adopt those used by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in its biennial report, Measuring UP. That Report grades higher education in each state by measures in the categories of preparation, participation, affordability, completion, benefits, and learning. The national Commission should develop appropriate measures with trends over time in each of these categories for public research universities. Other groups should propose similar indicators for comprehensive universities and community colleges.

The category of preparation might include a measure on the percent of first year students with rigorous college preparatory courses in high school. Such a measure would stimulate school reform rather than stress student selectivity. Another indicator could include the number and quality of teachers graduated, especially in critical fields, such as science, math, and English as a second language. Participation should include the percent of college age students in the state enrolled by race, gender, and income. Trends in transfers from community colleges could check on their transition to baccalaureate degrees at the best public universities. Affordability might include a measure showing tuition and fees, minus financial aid, as a percent of state median family income. Completion should compare actual with predicted graduation rates based on student preparation and aptitude. Benefits might cover degrees granted in critical fields, as well the usual sponsored research and faculty publications. Student learning represents a challenging area. As a start, it might include evidence from surveys such as the National Survey on Student Engagement and alumni surveys that probe the value added in student learning. The categories proposed above are critical; the measures, merely examples.

The soul of state universities is surely worth saving. The current conflict pits peer prestige against public purpose. The time has come to design a new rating system for public research universities. That rating should rely less on what they receive in resources and more on their results in creating assessable universities as great in undergraduate education and public engagement as they are in faculty research. Saving the soul of public universities means raising their prestige to a higher standard—one that includes their public purpose.

Author/s: 
Joseph C. Burke
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Joseph C. Burke is director of the Higher Education Program at the Rockefeller Institute of Government of the State University of New York. He is editor and co-author of Fixing the Fragmented University: Decentralization with Direction, to be published this year by Anker Press. 

The Failure of Critical Thinking

The current controversies over admission practices of elite public and private institutions illustrate what happens when we allow ourselves to fight about the wrong things. This lack of critical thinking begins with a false premise and continues with an attack on institutions that do not conform to the false premise. Sometimes, rather than pointing out the false premise, institutions and their leaders react defensively as if the false premise were correct. Both attacker and respondent in this circumstance fail the test of critical thinking.

The error is usually at the beginning. Someone ( most recently the Education Trust, but the list of commentators who have taken the same tack is long) asserts that elite public universities should be admitting as many poor people as there are in the population of high school graduates in their states. Having asserted this erroneous notion, they compile data (that may also be flawed) using often unreliable methodologies, and issue a manifesto damning elite public universities because they don’t meet the original false premise. Rather than pointing out the error, some elite universities, sensing a politically correct risk, counter with data showing how much they do to recruit and subsidize the poor people who want to come to their university.

All this is not very helpful in addressing issues of access and affordability. We do indeed have to pay attention to the possibility that some graduates of high school who have the preparation and interest might be priced out of an opportunity to acquire a quality higher education, either by virtue of a high net cost of attendance or by the imposition of admissions standards that less affluent students find difficult to meet. This, however, is not a problem that belongs to elite public or private universities alone but is a challenge faced by all the providers of higher education in America.  To focus on elite institutions is to make some pernicious and inaccurate assumptions about all the other institutions of higher education.

If we assume that everyone should have an equal opportunityto attend an elite public or private institution (since both are heavily subsidized by taxpayers), then we must also assume that attendance at a non-elite public or private institution represents an unsatisfactory and therefore unequal  outcome for a student.  If the community colleges, state colleges, non-flagship state institutions, and many non-elite private colleges represent an unsatisfactory and inequitable opportunity, compared to what we call elite institutions, that would seem to require us to assume that they do a poor job of educating students; that the results of their educational efforts are second rate; and that anyone who attends such places is sure to be deficient upon graduation. This kind of thinking may reflect the snobbery of some elite groups who can’t imagine a good education coming from a campus of the California State University system, or a fine education at a combination of Greenfield Community College and Westfield State College in Massachusetts.  Such an assumption also reflects a profound ignorance about the actual academic performance of the students who graduate from these “non-elite” institutions.

The notion of “elite institution” deserves some attention. We who live and work in institutions labeled elite have every reason to accept the premise that only an education in our remarkable places is worth having even if we can present little evidence to demonstrate that our elite characteristics result in higher performance after graduation. Research that attempts to demonstrate the higher value of elite compared to non-elite education seems to indicate that while some people may benefit from instruction at a small private elite college, most students do just about as well after graduation, all other things being equal, whether they go to elite or non-elite institutions.

The elite status of an institution comes from its ability to spend more money than institutions deemed “non-elite.” These expenditures do indeed make a different institution. For example, a state flagship institution may have its faculty teaching only half time, assigning the other half time to research. The student activities supported by the elite institution may be more elaborate, the residential spaces more elegant, the quality of the buildings and other facilities more impressive, the student recreation center more comprehensive, and the intercollegiate sports program more nationally visible. These amenities define elite status for undergraduates, and many assume that the amenities reflect academic quality. Students and their parents like these amenities, they ask about them when they visit campus, and they appear willing to pay a premium for the opportunity to participate in the residential life of an elite university.  Still, the data that would tell us that the students really learn more and will do much better after graduation as a result of these amenities is not very persuasive.

If we figure the cost of attendance at one of these elite institutions and compare it to the cost of attending a community college and state college, near where the student lives and where the student can hold down a job, we find that the best educational bargain by far is the community college-state college combination.

When we worry about whether poor people can get access to college, some imagine that a zero cost of attendance will solve the problem. That doesn’t really work.  Even when an institution pays for the tuition and fees, including room and board, for students below some income marker, these students still come up short an additional $10K to make up for the opportunity cost of living away from home and losing the income from a regular 12-month part-time or full-time job. The public cost of subsidizing elite education for all is very high for rather limited gains. And, of course, there are not enough spots in what we call elite institutions to accommodate all the deserving students of all income levels. 

Because space is limited, even in elite public institutions with enrollments over 40,000, the institutions select students based on various criteria, some related to geography, some related to ethnicity, some related to academic preparation, and some related to athletic skill. It would certainly be possible to add other criteria to this list to try and achieve an equal opportunity for all students. However, the only truly “fair” admission process would do what we suggested in an earlier Reality Check: fill the class using random selection from a pool composed of all high school graduates who meet the institution’s minimum admission criteria. There is a certain simplistic charm to this notion.

What’s the great benefit, then, that the elite institutions provide?  Well, they are elite and they are expensive, and they have luxuries that aren’t available at the community college or state college, or non-elite private institution. Do they do a better job of helping students who have deficient high school preparation succeed? Surely not better than the community college that specializes in serving these constituencies.

The real issue for any state is whether its total system of public higher education is effectively serving the people for whom the institutions are intended. If we believe that only elite public research institutions provide quality academic preparation and degrees, we should close the community colleges, the state colleges, and the university campuses not deemed “elite” and transfer those funds and the responsibility for serving all graduates of the state’s high schools to elite institutions and require them to expand their enrollments to accommodate all the college bound students of the state.

This solution, impossible of course, would result in each elite institution reinventing community colleges, non-elite campuses located near the communities from which the students come, and investing only a fraction of the funding available in the high priced research university environment that many people define as elite.

The failure of critical thinking about how to provide quality higher education to all citizens leads people to confuse two challenges. The first is how a state should construct a higher education system that will ensure access for all qualified and interested students. The second is how to express hostility toward politically incorrect elite institutions. The first challenge is worth worrying about; the second one is just plain silly.

Author/s: 
John V. Lombardi
Author's email: 
lombardi@umass.edu

Sorting Through the Critiques

We have just finished the year of the higher education critique. Beginning with the influential National Academies jeremiad, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," and leading up to December’s National Center on Education and the Economy’s call to arms, "Tough Choices or Tough Times," no fewer than six major commissions last year published recommendations for reinventing American education.

Within this blizzard of reports, higher education -- and especially public higher education -- has faced considerable criticism. Add in politicians decrying rising tuition, and editorial writers charging public universities with elitism, and education officials and policymakers can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by (often conflicting) advice.

The rough treatment for higher education began with the release in September of the final report by the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which characterized American universities as “increasingly risk-averse, at times self-satisfied, and unduly expensive.”

More recent reports by the Education Trust and National Conference of State Legislatures were particularly critical of public universities, the former charging that state flagships have abandoned their historic mission of increasing social mobility for all, with the latter scolding state legislators for weak leadership and schools for lax accountability.

Last month a New York Times editorial went even further, accusing public universities of “choking off” college access to poor and minority students. The Times claimed that the “compact,” in which public universities offer broad access in exchange for taxpayer subsidies, has been “pretty much discarded.”

The Need for a Wider Angle View

The increased public attention to education is understandable given the growing nationwide anxiety over issues such as the achievement gap between white and minority students; poor science and math performance among primary and secondary students; the outsourcing of jobs to China, India, and other developing nations; and rapid increases in the cost of college.

But when assigning blame for these problems, the recent critiques may well focus too narrowly, using a telephoto lens when what is needed is a wide angle one.

Look at a few examples. As the National Conference of State Legislatures and Spellings Commission reports acknowledge, funding and financial aid mechanisms for higher education are in need of serious reform. The Manhattan Institute’s reports on high dropout rates in urban high schools have lifted the veil on a critical issue. And the National Academies report sparked a dialogue on economic competitiveness that even found voice in President Bush’s 2006 State of the Union address.

To be sure, each of these topics is important. But these critiques isolate troublesome segments of the pre-K-16 continuum rather than assessing the whole. (One exception is the National Center on Education and the Economy's report -- the most radical of the bunch -- which, among other things, calls for an overhaul of the American K-12 system along the lines of the European model of college preparation.)

The most narrowly focused is the searing Education Trust report and subsequent Times editorial that focus, by and large, on the issue of who is admitted to public flagship universities, and then how that education is financed. No doubt these are topics worthy of debate. However, singling out the admissions and financial aid practices of 50 or so flagship universities is to treat a symptom of a broader problem, not a root cause.

When students arrive at the doorstep of the University at Buffalo, or any other major university, we see the results of nearly two decades of prior experience, from families, society, and, of course, schools -- circumstances over which we currently have only minimal control. The reports, though, do not sufficiently appreciate that readiness is a precondition for success in college, and is an element of the education pipeline that actually begins in childhood. But in many urban and poor districts -- where dropout rates often top 50 percent for minority students -- the education pipeline simply is broken.

Indeed, the issue of diversity and access to higher education is a complex one, and can only be partially understood – or rectified – by looking at the end of the education pipeline. We must therefore focus on the entire spectrum of potential students' experiences that lead to the characteristics they arrive with at admissions time.

For that reason, the notion that public universities deserve most of the blame for enrolling too few students from minority and low-income backgrounds is a gross oversimplification, as well as highly misleading. Virtually every month state systems announce new financial aid, college preparation, and advising programs to help low-income families send their children to college with little or no debt.

These hardly sound like the efforts of universities that have abandoned their mission to educate a diverse cross-section of qualified students. In truth, addressing the very real problems the reports describe is a long-range and collaborative process that will occur not just in college admissions and financial aid offices, but in the pre-kindergarten classroom, and many other stops in between.

What to Do

Higher education is not without problems, nor the reports without merit. Saying there are too few graduates from minority groups and low-income families only begins to touch on broader issues of race, class, and mobility in American society. Training and retaining enough graduates in the STEM fields is a growing, if poorly understood, national concern. And students and their families are under tremendous strain to make sense of a multitude of educational offerings, finance their choice, and, ultimately, graduate within a reasonable amount of time.

In my experience, however, many leaders in higher education are working every day to find solutions to these problems. Far from a lack of desire, the failure of our education system to make faster progress stems, in large measure, from the complexity of the challenge. This is why it is imperative that any collective solutions to these problems be undergirded by a recognition that the social forces behind them are broader and more historically-rooted than the reports acknowledge.

Unlike private institutions, publics have an obligation to try to reflect society at large. Though many private colleges have made sincere efforts to become less economically elite, these institutions ultimately bear neither the public’s expectation nor the statutory responsibility to educate a broadly representative population.

Indeed, our public colleges and universities, which educate more than three-quarters of all college students nationwide, serve communities of all racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds as a fundamental part of their missions. Many public research universities, like mine, are today working diligently and creatively to increase the number of qualified minority and low-income students we educate.

For example, the Buffalo-Area Engineering Awareness for Minorities (BEAM) program in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences offers free pre-college classes to middle school and high school students who want to explore the wonders of science and technology. Since BEAM’s inception in 1982, 90 percent of its students have gone on to attend four-year colleges. Here, and elsewhere in major public universities, this hardly is a new endeavor.

But these efforts, by themselves, will lead to only incremental improvements. Success will come only when public higher education works in lock-step with primary and secondary education systems to ensure that students have the intellectual and emotional preparation for success, and the financial support to achieve it.

State and local officials therefore need to strengthen the education pipeline by supporting changes that will make the system a seamless whole rather than a series of disjointed parts. As a critical part of that strategy, public higher education must do more to help primary and secondary schools improve educational outcomes.

For example, my university is building on its years of engagement with the Buffalo Public Schools to create a strong partnership that will help students gain the education and skills needed to succeed in the 21st century economy. This partnership would include, for instance, early childhood experts sharing the latest insights on cognitive development, or addiction researchers working to break generational cycles of dependence.

Finally, states must re-commit themselves to providing the financial support necessary for public colleges and universities to thrive. At a time when America risks falling further behind other countries in educational achievement, the state share of public colleges’ budgets is in decline -- and has been so for more than three decades. If states reversed this trend it would send a clear signal to Washington that investment in higher education should be our first national economic priority.

Far from being isolated ivory towers, our public institutions of higher education are actually more relevant today than ever before. If fully embraced, and more engaged in strengthening the education pipeline, these institutions have both the potential and the intention to do far more than they already do to offer solutions to the serious issues raised in this year’s reports.

Author/s: 
John B. Simpson
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

John B. Simpson is president of the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. He was a member of the recent higher education delegation to Asia led by the U.S. secretary of education.

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