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.
Joseph C. Burke
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.Â
Assessment will make higher education accountable. That’s the claim of many federal and state education policy makers, as illustrated by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Improved assessment has become for many the lever to control rising tuition and to inform the public about how much students might learn (and whether they learn at all). But many in higher education worry that assessment can become a simplistic tool -- producing data and more work for colleges, but potentially little else.
Has the politicization of assessment deepened the divide between higher education and the public? How can assessment play the role wished for by policy makers to gauge accountability and affordability and also be a powerful tool for faculty members and college presidents and provosts to use to improve quality and measure competitiveness? Successful policies will include practices that lead to confidence, trust and satisfaction -- confidence by faculty members in the multiple roles of assessment, trust by the public that assessment will bring accountability, and satisfaction by the leaders such as the presidents that assessment will restore the public’s confidence in higher education. A tall order to be sure, but we believe assessment – done correctly -- can play a pivotal role in the resolution to the current debate on cost and quality.
For confidence, trust and satisfaction to occur, higher education and public officials must each take two steps. Higher education must first recognize that public accountability is a fact and an appropriate expectation. This means muting the calls by public higher education for more autonomy from state and federal government based simply on the declining percent of the annual higher education budget provided by public sources. This argument may help gain the attention of policy makers regarding the financial conundrums in higher education but it is not a suitable argument against accountability. Between federal and state sources, billions of dollars have been invested in higher education over the nearly 150 years of public higher education. The public deserves to know that its investments of the past are being used well today -- efficiently and effectively.
In response, federal and state policy makers need to publicly embrace the notion advocated as early as 1997 that quality is based on “high standards not standardization.” Higher education’s differentiation is a great gift to America. The cornerstone of American higher education -- institutions with a diversity of missions -- is meeting the educational needs of different kinds of students with different levels of preparation and ability to pay. It is important to recognize that assessment must match and reinforce the pluralism of American higher education. America is graced with many different kinds of colleges -- private, public, religious, secular, research, etc. It is important to have an assessment system that encourages colleges and universities to pursue unique missions.
A second step is for higher education to make transparent the evidence of quality that the public needs in order to trust higher education. “Just trust us,” is no longer sufficient as higher education has flexed its independence in setting ever increasing tuition rates in spite of the public’s belief that it has been excessive. Trust is built on transparency of evidence not mere declarations of quality. Practically a few indicators of quality that cut across higher education are going to be required. For example, surrogate and indirect measures of learning and development captured by student surveys, amount of need-based financial assistance, dollars per student invested in advising services, and dollars per faculty member dedicated to instructional and curricular development are some possibilities. Public opinion is heavily on the side of legislators and members of Congress on this issue.
For public policy makers, it is imperative to accept the notion that to assess is to share the evidence and then to care. Caring requires action and support not just criticism. Public policy makers must educate themselves about the complexity of higher education teaching, research and public engagement. This means accepting that the indicators of quality of the work of the academy are complex, as they should be. Whatever indicators are chosen, the benchmarks will vary by type of college or university. Take graduation rates as an example. Inevitably, highly selective colleges and universities are much more likely to have higher graduation rates than those with access as a goal. The students being admitted to the highly selective colleges and universities already have demonstrated their ability to achieve and have the study skills and background to be successful in college. Open access colleges and universities, on the other hand, have a greater percentage of students who are at risk, need to develop study skills in college, and are in general less prepared for the riggers of college study when compared to those with high achievement records out of high school. But these characteristics -- which frequently also result in lower graduation rates -- do not make these colleges and universities inadequate or not worthy of public support. Many great thinkers have said that a nation can be judged by how it treats its poor; this same argument works for education. The goal for everyone is to do better, starting where the students are -- not where we would like them to be when admitted.
With both sides changing their approaches, the public and higher education can productively focus on how together they can use assessment as an effective tool to determine quality and foster improvement. In doing so, we offer eight recommendations that if followed can offer the faculty the confidence they demand that assessment is a valid tool for communicating the evidence of student learning and development, the presidents the satisfaction that when all is said and done, it will have been worth the effort, and the public the trust that higher education is responsive to its concerns.
1. Recognize that assessment can serve both those within the academy and those outside of it, but different approaches to assessment are required. Faculty members and students can use assessment to provide the feedback that creates patterns and provides insight for their own discussion and decision making. To them assessment is not to be some distant mechanical process far removed from teaching and learning. On the other hand, parents, prospective students, collaborators, and policy makers also can benefit from the results of assessment but the evidence is very different. Through institutional assessment, they can know that specific colleges and universities are more or less effective as places to educate students, which types of students they best serve, and the best fit for jointly tackling society’s problems.
2. Focus on creating a culture of evidence as opposed to a culture of outcomes. Language and terms are important in this endeavor. The latter implies a rigidity of ends, whereas the former reflects the dynamic nature of learning, student development and solution making. A “teaching for the test” mentality cannot be the goal for most academic programs. We know from experience that assessment strategies that have relied heaviest on external standardized measures of achievement have been inadequate to detect with any precision any of the complex learning and developmental goals of higher education, e.g. critical thinking, commitment, values.
3. Accept that measurement of basic academic and vocationally oriented skills and competences may be appropriate for segments of the student population. For example, every time we get on an airplane we think of the minimum (and hopefully) high standards of the training of the pilots and the rigorous assessment procedures that “guarantee” quality assurance.
4. Avoid generic comparisons between colleges and universities as much as possible. A norm-referenced approach to testing guarantees that one half of the colleges and universities will be below average. The goal is not to be above average on some arbitrary criterion, but to achieve the unique mission and purpose of the specific college and university. A better strategy is to build off one’s strengths -- at both the individual and institutional level. Doing so reinforces an asset rather than a deficit view of both individual and institutional behavior leading to positive change and pride in institutional purpose. In order to benchmark progress, identify similar institutions. Such practices will encourage more differentiation in higher education and work to stem the tide of institutions clamoring to catch up with or be like what is perceived as a more prestigious college or university. "Be what you are, do it exceptionally well, and we will do what we can to fund you" would be a good state education policy.
5. Focus on tools that assess a range of student talent, not just one type or set of skills or knowledge. Multiple perspectives are critical to portraying the complexity of students’ achievements and the most effective learning and development environments for the enrolled students. All components of the learning environment, including student experiences outside the classroom and in the community must be assessed. We must measure what is meaningful, not give meaning to what we measure or test. Sometimes simple quantitative data such as graduation rates and records of employments are sufficient and essential for accountability purposes. But to give a full portrayal of student learning and development and environmental assessment, many types of evidence in addition to achievement tests are needed. Sometimes portfolio assessment will be appropriate, and at other times standardized exams will be sufficient.
6. Connect assessment with development and change. Assessment has been most useful when driven by commitment to l earn, create and develop, not when it has been mandated for purposes of administration and policy making. Assessment is the means, not the end. It is an important tool to be sure, but it always needs to point to some action by the participating stakeholders and parties.
7. Create campus conversations about establishing effective environments for the desirable ends of a college education. Assessment can contribute to this discussion. In its best from, assessment focuses discussion, not make decisions. People do that, and people need to be engaged in conversations and dialogue in ways that they focus not on the evidence but the solutions. As we stated earlier, to assess is to share and care. When groups of faculty get together to discuss the evaluations of their students they initially focus, somewhat defensively, on the assessment evidence (and the biases inherent in such endeavors), but as they get to know and trust each other they focus on how to help each other to improve.
8. Emphasize assessment’s role in “value added” strategies. Assessment should be informing the various publics about how the educational experiences of students or of the institutional engagement in the larger society is bringing value to the students and society. All parties need to get used to the idea that education can be conceptualized and interpreted in terms of a return on investment. But this can only be accomplished if we know what we are aiming for. This will be different for each college and university and that is why the dialogue with policy makers is so crucial. For some, the primary goal of college will focus on guiding students in their self discovery and contributing to society; for others it will be more on making a living; for yet others on understanding the world in which we live.
When both the public and higher education accept and endorse the principle that assessment is less about compliance or standardization and more about sharing, caring and transparency, then confidence, trust and satisfaction will be more likely. We believe that higher education must take the lead by focusing on student learning and development and engage with the public in collaborative decision making. If not, policy makers may conclude that they have only the clubs of compliance and standardization to get higher education’s attention.
Larry Braskamp and Steven Schomberg
Larry A. Braskamp, formerly senior vice President for academic affairs at Loyola University Chicago, is professor of education at the university. Steven Schomberg, retired in 2005 as Vice Chancellor for Public Engagement and Institutional Relations, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Wick Sloane filed this application for the Iowa presidency two days before the Iowa Board of Regents announced the collapse of the search. The original column, which we run here, holds up, though. Wick, still a reluctant nominee for the Harvard presidency, said he'd only add, "Compensation and country club memberships for presidents are not the point. Courage is the issue -- by regents and presidents -- courage to face the atrocious mess we've all made of public higher education."
I hereby apply for the presidency of the sensational University of Iowa. The cornerstone of my offer is that I apply as a low bidder. Qualified bidder, of course.
When, oh when, will a public Board of Regents write the accurate ad?
"Help! Public higher ed in peril! Low-income students screwed. Medicaid and prisons chewing up all the money. U.I. annual in-state tuition is $6,135, with federal Pell grants frozen at $4,050. No, we can't balance the budget with more research and out-of-state tuitions because the other 49 states have that same plan. Only candidates willing to lead with concrete ideas apply."
The great University of Iowa is within a few bushels of corn and soybeans of catastrophe. Press coverage has been handwringing that the current presidential pay of $300,000 or so and a house will never attract talent. All of us unlucky enough to live on the U.S. coasts count on the integrity of Iowa to keep the nation grounded with common sense and sane values. After all, the President of the United States settles for $400,000 and a house. That’s a big job, too.
The Iowa job specifications, which anyone could find from the university’s Web site, might as well be from Massachusetts or Oregon. The tone reiterates the U.S. party line: Public higher education is a fund drive and a few fat paychecks away from eternal bliss. “Our state university will be fine if… if it’s the ones across the state line that are cursed.” (Question: why do candidates who won’t return calls for posts paying less than $500,000 need the job spelled out in these tedious specifications?)
Every public search for a public university president strolls toward the same gallows: Higher and higher salaries, for faculty and administrators, to attract top talent; raise more money; more research funding; collect vast new revenues by attracting students paying out-of-state tuition. No mention of the colliding federal polices that guarantee state-to-state cannibalization by colleges and universities. In the Iowa specs, no requirement to respond to the three-alarm-fire report in September from the U.S. Department of Education Commission on the Future of Higher Education.
Ten candidates for the U.I. $500k-and-a-house presidency allegedly spent a weekend this month in furtive conversations in or around Chicago with or without members of the search committee. I write in empathy and exhortation. I can’t think of many jobs with more overwhelming responsibilities and difficult tradeoffs than public university regent or senior administrator. Isn’t, though, The Point of great education having the skills to frame the impossible and find some answers?
I’ll take the Iowa job for the lower of $250,000 and a house or half whatever compensation package is now on the table. No raises, no bonuses, no country club memberships. I do want the difference, though, for staff development, for faculty travel and research, and for scholarships. Check out the rules for service contracting for the Iowa Department of Administrative Services. Shouldn’t these low-cost principles apply for the U.I. presidency? Of course executive recruiters say high pay is the answer. Recruiters’ pay is a percentage of total compensation. As U.I. president, I’ll also propose eliminating federal tax benefits for any university or college paying a president more than $250,000 plus a house. The job is public service, a privilege, not a hedge fund. The cheers from families every graduation are the incentive pay.
I’ll ask to have ready, prior to arrival, a thorough, statistically sound survey of faculty, students and staff. What’s working? What’s not? Issues and aspirations. U.I. is huge. I’ll need to know quickly what really is on everyone’s minds. We’ll meet once a week and knock off as many concerns as we can each week.
I will sit down with my colleagues at the other Iowa universities and request that we create a plan for fair sharing of scarce state resources to ensure every Iowan has the skills for a successful 21st Century career, preferably in Iowa. Put penalties in my pay for joint accountability for educational accomplishment for every Iowa public university student. Flagships cannot just grab the easy stuff. I’ve seen too many social and political forces incent state flagships to work in their own interests, not for the total state. We will identify by name those Iowans who lack a solid education, and we will make measurable progress for them semester by semester. Dock my pay for failure here.
Funding, funding and funding is the president’s job. My second day, I’ll invite the Iowa Congressional delegation and state legislators to campus. What’s their thinking on federal Medicaid cutbacks to the states and their devastating effect on public higher education nationwide? I will duct tape my mouth shut and listen. No state university, let alone state university president, will survive without addressing the dysfunctional federal policies eroding access to higher education. I’ll send ahead the Web links to my credos on this issue. I am sure these Iowans will have better ideas than mine.
I will continue to exhort Midwestern higher education to be the voice for the nation. I was lucky enough in 2005 to work with the Midwestern provosts of the Committee on Institutional Collaboration (CIC). I was a Fellow for Higher Education Finance for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. My nudge to the weary then was to ask these fine provosts from the CIC universities to remember their home state, not just their home campus. Iowa. Illinois. Indiana. Ohio. Michigan. Pennsylvania. Wisconsin. The Congressional delegations that can rule the land, if someone will give the delegations a plan. A unified, consistent demand for federal education funding by all states is the strongest strategy. Cannibalism is the name for the current individual campus lobbying and earmarking.
The 2008 Iowa Caucuses? And the U.S. presidential primaries in CIC states that follow? The Iowa university presidents must lead off with the demand for a consistent, fair federal education policy to create a solid economy for this century. Yes, the great rustbelt industries of the G.I. Bill are struggling. But G.I. Bill education funding created the skills that set off the greatest economic boom in history. What plan will begin that boom for this century? The CIC and neighboring states are 117 electoral votes. (Tony New England has some fine colleges but only 34 electoral votes.) Who better than the next U.I. president to lead this discussion? Any public university presidents without a plan for the nation on the table are already well past the first act of their own Greek tragedy. Doomed. The chorus has spoken.
The Des Moines Register reported earlier this year on U.I. regent concerns about keeping candidate names secret and about whether finalists would even have on-campus interviews. A worry is that good candidates don’t want their current employer to know is one reason cited. Guys, anyway, in these lofty pay grades always crow. Be assured that some of the Chicago Ten are already using these Iowa caucuses for a pay raise at home.
Far from lurking in closed meetings, every candidate must address the campus and the state legislature and describe the terrifying facts facing U.S. public higher education. And how Iowa has to put the issues on the table, yesterday, and lead. Iowa would serve the nation by launching this discussion.
U.I. is a research university. Before the end of my first week, I’ll ask all the principal investigators if they’ll give me a day to answer a simple mystery no one will face down: Does U.S. higher education need another building? We have no idea what the total classroom capacity of the U.S. is period, let alone in relation to students already born. Classrooms are dark weekends and most evenings. The research situation is worse. Individual university studies show projections of growth in research funding. But the universities are all looking at the same data. How does current lab space and space under construction relate to new funding scenarios? We have no idea. I’d rather improve faculty salaries and student financial aid.
College athletics is an oxymoron and a resource sinkhole. On my third day, I will show how Iowa, without losing any fun, pride or entertainment, can turn collegiate athletics over to a national NGO. (As an NGO, the Federal Reserve System, with NCAA-like regions, is right there.) My plan is for all the same teams, conferences and bowl games. The university and college role, though, will just be collecting tuition and teaching classes for the athletes. The current national situation makes no more sense than the New York Yankees taking over New York City schools. That Iowans know this is obvious: The bow-tied Iowa Regent Chair Michael Gartner is principal owner of the Iowa Cubs. Is he proposing that the Cubs take over the Des Moines schools?
Searches are too solemn. As part of my interviews, I challenge Regent Gartner to a blindfolded, bow-tie tying contest during halftime of any Hawkeye game he chooses. Perhaps while the crowd serenades with the Iowa fight song.
What an ideal time for an Iowa-led education century in the United States. Harvard is history. I’m a nominee for that presidency, and Iowa is the better job. Harvard has a $29-billion endowment and no common sense. My favorite evidence: Harvard Yard is 31 feet above sea level. The university sits on the Charles River, an estuary, and all that brainpower has no plan for global warming.
On compensation, though, I do have my price. May I move the president’s office over to the sensational UI Iowa Writers’ Workshop?
Wick Sloane's Inside Higher Ed column, The Devil's Workshop, appears as needed. He is an end user of a higher education.
Every December, highly educated young people load up their Toyotas and hop on airplanes to spend the holidays with their families. This year was no exception. For a week or two, libraries and laboratories across the country went quiet. The lights went off in Manhattan editorial offices and advertising agencies; Washington’s government bureaucracies ground to a halt; and Northern California’s venture capital firms and tech companies stopped making deals. At the same time, business picked up at small-town bars and breakfast joints across the country, as all of those academics, editors, lawyers, and engineers reconnected with their families and scattered high school classmates.
I used to think of the holiday season -- with its cloying carols, crowded sidewalks, and inevitable sugar headaches -- as an annual nightmare. But these days, my view of the season has shifted. While I’m still not a fan, I’ve come to appreciate how Christmas temporarily desegregates the American population.
That’s a statement that needs some explanation. “Segregation” is intimately tied to race in American vocabulary, but race is not the only way in which America is segregated. In fact, over the last several decades, residential racial segregation -- the tendency of African-American and white families to live in the same neighborhood -- has declined substantially. That doesn’t mean that spatial inequalities have disappeared. Despite the progress that we’ve made, many cities remain highly racially segregated. Despite the progress that we’ve made on racial desegregation, economic segregation -- poor and affluent families’ propensity to live near one another -- hasn’t budged. Furthermore, during the last few decades a whole new form of residential segregation has emerged. I call it educational segregation: College graduates have become increasingly clustered in a handful of places, while large swathes of America experience a long, drawn-out brain drain.
This is the form of segregation that I have in mind when I say that the holidays temporarily desegregate the American population. Every December, holiday cheer pushes young college graduates out of America’s creative cities and college towns and back to their hometowns across the country.
Much of my research has been dedicated to documenting educational segregation. My interest has autobiographical roots. I was born and raised in Madison County, Nebraska (where 17 percent of adults had a B.A. or higher degree in 2000). Like most of my friends, I always knew that success meant leaving town, and that’s exactly what I did. I went to college in central Connecticut (where 34 percent of adults held B.A.'s) and graduate school in Manhattan (the 13th most highly educated county in the U.S., with a B.A. concentration of 49 percent). My current gig has me living in a faculty ghetto in central New Jersey (where each and every one of my neighbors has a postgraduate degree). But I’m a social scientist, not a memoirist, and I’m primarily interested in the ways in which educational segregation shapes inequality and opportunity in American life. My research suggests that educationally selective migration is fundamentally altering America’s social geography, and that this change has consequences that we are only beginning to understand.
Some of these consequences are positive. Economic research provides strong evidence to suggest that the spatial concentration of human capital stimulates economic growth. As anybody who has ever had a successful collaboration with the colleague down the hall can tell you, causal conversation over the coffee machine can often lead to real breakthroughs. Turns out, the same thing happens in regional economics. When smart people cluster together, innovation occurs, productivity rises, and growth occurs. This is undoubtedly a good thing. Thanks to educational segregation, the cities and college towns in which many of us live have become bright spots in the American economy. And even those of us who live outside these bright spots benefit to some extent from advances that take place when highly educated people rub shoulders.
But educational segregation is a zero-sum game. For every booming human capital hub, there are dozens of brain drain communities, and for these communities educational segregation can be disastrous. While brain drain is not exclusively a rural phenomenon, the picture is particularly bleak for rural America. In any given year, more than 6 percent of America’s non-metropolitan B.A. holders migrate to a metropolitan area. Economic growth has stalled in these brain drain communities. In the worst cases, communities are left with insufficient medical care and limited educational opportunities, as they find themselves unable to replace retiring small-town doctors and teachers. There’s no reason why college graduates need to be distributed equally across the United States. But deepening educational segregation closes off opportunities for people born into brain drain communities, creating new social and economic inequalities.
So how do we break the vicious cycle of educational segregation or at least mitigate its worse consequences? I’m generally a big believer in the transformative power of education, but for all the benefits that college-goers get from higher education, state investments in higher education don’t do much to keep talent in brain drain communities. Since human capital is mobile, places can’t educate their way out of educational segregation. The nation’s two most highly educated states -- Connecticut and Massachusetts -- rank 33th and 48th respectively on per capita higher education funding. And all but two of the of the 10 states that spent the most per capita on higher education in the early 1990s experienced net brain drain between 1990 and 2000. In a sense, by putting money into public higher education, my home state of Nebraska is underwriting the out-migration of its most talented young people and subsidizing economic growth in the places they end up.
Economist Richard Florida advocates a “creative cities” approach, urging communities on the losing end of educational segregation to cultivate the cultural amenities and social tolerance that highly educated youth value. This advice turns the common-sense logic of regional economic planning on its head. While planners have traditionally focused on getting businesses to locate in their communities, reasoning that jobs will attract workers; Florida has been convincing planners to focus their attention on attracting the highly-educated “creative class”, arguing that these workers make jobs for themselves and others. Based on the Florida model, the city of Memphis is busily organizing arts festivals and rezoning neighborhoods to allow sidewalk cafes in an attempt to attract highly educated migrants and stimulate economic growth. This effort is almost certainly better than nothing, but my research suggests that neither amenities nor jobs attract college graduates to human capital hubs. The big lure is the presence of other college graduates. Furthermore, even if Memphis does manage to make itself a human capital hub, chances are it’ll be snatching its college graduates from the surrounding countryside, not New York, Washington, or Raleigh-Durham. Building new creative cities may only aggravate educational segregation overall.
A third approach leverages student financial aid incentives to slow brain drain. With college tuition growing at a rate that outpaces both inflation and the availability of financial aid, and student loan programs rapidly replacing grant programs, several states successfully used student debt relief programs to fill local occupational shortages. But recently, policy-makers have become more ambitious with these plans. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has proposed a merit-based scholarship program that would give high-achieving Indiana high school graduates $20,000 a year for tuition and living expenses, as long as they promised to stay in the state for three years after graduation. U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), meanwhile, thinks that slowing brain drain is the federal government’s job. Under his New Homestead Act, the government would pay off college loans, provide tax credits, mortgage assistance, and business start-up funds for people who settle in depopulating rural counties.
There’s definitely an element of pork-barrel politics to Dorgan’s New Homestead Act. But short of declaring every day Christmas, it strikes me as our best available approach to slowing educational segregation. The problems associated with uneven talent flows are best addressed at the federal level, rather than the state level. Brain drain states’ educational investments subsidize growth in brain gain states, so it seems only fair that brain drain communities should help solve the problems that educational segregation creates. The New Homestead Act’s incentives probably aren’t enough to reverse educational segregation trends. (After all, how many 22-year-olds decide where to live based on their marginal income tax rate?) But for young adults who are committed to staying their hometowns, but wonder what good a college education can do them there, the New Homestead Act would be a boon, likely raising educational attainment rates and helping brain drain communities hold onto local talent. If we care about equality of opportunity in America, those are both important things to do.
Thurston Domina is a research associate at the Office of Population Research at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in sociology last year from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and is currently hunting for a tenure track job in a place with plenty of sidewalk cafes.Â
As someone who works with many states to improve education, I’m deeply troubled by the lack of our national progress -- and the missing urgency in postsecondary education -- toward improving students’ readiness for college and their prospects for completing college degrees.
Many in postsecondary education agree the readiness problem must be addressed, and a few states have taken strong early steps toward a solution. So, why haven’t we moved closer to solving the readiness problem?
The largest obstacle is that all of postsecondary education still does not see the readiness problem and the elements of addressing it in the same ways. Some question the size of the problem. Some fear that students’ access to higher learning could be at risk. Others fear that admissions would be affected, or believe that we can solve it simply by requiring more high school courses, or that readiness is more of a problem for high schools to solve.
We must come together in postsecondary education on many of these points if we are to prepare far greater numbers of students for college. ACT Inc. estimates that 60 percent to 70 percent of its test takers are not well-prepared for college study. Considering that only about half of students who enroll in college actually earn a degree or certificate, we must find ways to confront this problem. Research shows that most future job opportunities in the U.S. will require some level of college study or career training after high school.
A handful of states have taken action toward improving college readiness -- notably Arkansas, California, Indiana, Georgia, Kentucky and Texas, all of which have at least established specific state policy agendas for dealing with the problem.
Achieve Inc. has worked with many states through its American Diploma Project to promote the importance and help states take some early steps toward improving college readiness. The American Council on Education and the State Higher Education Executive Officers also are among the groups that have begun supporting the need to take action on readiness.
Most states, though, have neither committed to a specific agenda for improving college readiness nor made significant progress.
The lack of progress is particularly worrisome because many in postsecondary education agree that improving college readiness is doable, and we have a good idea of the practical steps our states and K-12 and postsecondary education systems need to take.
Briefly, these steps are needed:
Establish college-readiness standards in language arts and mathematics that are embraced by all of postsecondary education.
Ensure adoption of the college-readiness standards by the public K-12 schools.
Identify high school tests that measure students’ performance on the standards early in high school so they can find the extra help or courses they need before or during the senior year.
Make these tests part of the state’s K-12 school accountability system.
Prepare current and new teachers in the new standards and how to incorporate them into classroom instruction.
So, if we know how to address this college-readiness challenge, why is there such little progress across many of our states and systems of postsecondary education?
As we have reviewed state policies on college readiness in the past year, a time during which many states should have been making considerable progress on readiness, we’ve seen a lack of shared views within and across states of the magnitude and nature of the readiness problems we face. There is simply not the critical convergence of thinking around various elements of the readiness challenge that is necessary for all interests to establish or commit to a bold action agenda.
I remember attending a graduate school forum some years ago and hearing the noted organizational psychologist Karl E. Weick, now a professor at the University of Michigan, refer to higher education as a bunch of solutions in search of relevant problems. In other words, frequently the most difficult task is defining the problem clearly and in such ways that all of the key parties embrace the definition. The solutions are more apparent when the definition is clarified.
Here are some suggestions about how to bring consensus on some of the key points in defining the readiness challenge:
First, there needs to be agreement that all states face a significant readiness problem. Research shows that most students are not well-prepared to begin college study in language arts, mathematics or both. Even many students who are not required to take remedial courses are not well-prepared for college work, and many professors and college administrators know it.
Few states apply one set of readiness standards across all of postsecondary education, resulting in individual campuses or systems setting their own readiness or placement standards. Frequently, the standards are lower than they should be to indicate readiness. States that recognize the magnitude of the readiness problem are more likely to make readiness a priority and move toward improvement.
Second, postsecondary education needs to embrace the improvement of college readiness as a move in its own best interest -- and in the best interest of every state and the entire nation. Some officials in postsecondary education will question this statement. After all, remedial education still generates per-student funding, and many students who are not ready for college still make their way into degree-credit courses and generate funding, at least until they drop out. Their lack of readiness also provides an easy explanation for low college graduation rates. Having high proportions of students better prepared for college would eliminate a reason higher education currently uses to explain the low rates and would make higher education more accountable for its own effectiveness. Thus, making postsecondary education more accountable for postsecondary completion while maintaining access would force us to take readiness more seriously, because readiness is a key factor in degree and certificate completion.
Third, postsecondary education must not confuse the need to improve readiness with a threat to college admission or entry. Confusing readiness with admission will only keep states and postsecondary education systems from reaching consensus on making readiness a priority. Broad-access and open-door institutions (which serve a large majority of students across the nation) will not fully embrace a readiness initiative if they believe it will negatively affect access. Therefore, states need to assert that access and entry will be maintained regardless of the readiness agenda. Remedial education will continue -- only, we hope, a lot less of it, for more students will be prepared to begin college work.
This is the fourth and most essential point: Improving college readiness depends on strengthening high school graduation requirements and diplomas, but states and higher education systems cannot delay dealing with the readiness problem until these graduation requirements rise to meet college-readiness standards. All states need to raise high school graduation and diploma requirements, increase high school graduation rates, improve student achievement, and ensure that much higher proportions of students are ready for college upon completing high school. All of these areas need careful and diligent work from K-12 and postsecondary leaders working together. Rhetoric calling for high school diploma and graduation requirements and high-stakes graduation tests to be changed overnight to ensure college readiness for all students in the near-term may cause the public schools to question whether higher graduation requirements are realistic. Many states already struggle with low graduation rates in high schools, even under existing requirements and tests.
Fifth and related to the last point, for the readiness initiative to be taken seriously, the general claims that “all students need to be ready for college and careers” needs to be narrowed down, clarified and embraced widely. We must specify what readiness means in those essential skills that every person needs to learn further in school and at work -- reading, writing and math. Specified in terms of these learning skills, a case can be made that all high school graduates need these skills in collegiate academic programs, postsecondary career-preparation programs, or subsequent on-the-job training. In today’s economy, all students need a certain level of basic skills to pursue their goals.
Sixth, postsecondary education and the public schools need to recognize that meeting the college-readiness challenge will center on setting specific, measurable performance standards in key learning skills and having more students achieve them. There is still some confusion over this focus, especially in postsecondary education, which has little experience in performance standards-based education (in contrast to public schools since the 1990s). Postsecondary education tends to see readiness as synonymous with high school courses and grades or with ACT or SAT scores. While rigorous high school courses and good grades are necessary, they do not by any means ensure readiness. The national admissions tests may come closer to indicating student readiness in reading, writing and math, but they do not provide the precise and transparent focus on the core standards that high school teachers need to use in their classroom instruction.
Seventh, the best kind of readiness agenda will require a statewide effort that has all of postsecondary education acting as a body, agreeing on one set of readiness standards and uniformly communicating them to all high schools in a state. This statewide stance is needed to ensure that teachers in all of a state’s high schools know exactly what standards to help students meet. No state has managed yet to get all of postsecondary education -- universities and community colleges -- to speak with one voice. College readiness will be improved only when high school classroom teachers receive clear and concise signals about standards, backed by all of postsecondary education in their state. Statewide, state-level policy direction may be needed to provide the framework for public schools and postsecondary education to coordinate their efforts.
Reaching consensus across postsecondary education on the definition of the nation’s college-readiness problem will help states and college systems move toward solutions. All states need explicit readiness standards in reading and math, and they need to bring postsecondary education and K-12 schools together to develop such standards and to implement them. Getting more students ready for college and the work place will benefit our nation, every state, all students and postsecondary education.
Dave Spence is the president of the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization based in Atlanta that works with 16 member states to improve pre-K-12 and postsecondary education. He is a former vice chancellor of the California, Florida and Georgia state university systems, and he received the Virginia B. Smith Innovative Leadership Award in 2006 from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
Conflicting pressures have put urban public institutions of higher education that serve large numbers of low-income and students of color in a straitjacket.
Major cities in the U.S. generally have higher concentrations of poverty, communities of color and immigrants than the suburbs do. The problems facing higher education in cities dovetail with other urban problems such as the quality of urban K-12 schools and the socioeconomic status of their students.
Consequently, state-supported urban institutions are being asked -- and have moral and long-term economic imperatives -- to provide more academic and student support services to students coming through pre-collegiate educational pipelines that have not prepared them for college than is true for many other kinds of colleges.
Compounding the problem, we are being presented with increasing performance and accountability mandates. All of this is happening at a time when state funding for those institutions is declining in a scandalous way, yet the pressure on them to keep tuition low is increasing. In short, we are being asked to do more with far fewer resources than ever before.
And the impact will inevitably fall onto our students, those who need it most. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said it herself in May: “In too many of our cities, the reality faced by minority and low-income kids is shocking.” Citing urban “dropout factories” and a 50 percent dropout rate for African-American, Latino and Native Americans, Spellings said, “We must ensure the same opportunities available to kids in the suburbs are available to kids in the city. If we don't, we will most certainly become a poorer, more divided nation of haves and have-nots.”
Parallels in Inequality
Many of our urban secondary schools are abysmal, it’s true. Equally unjustifiable, but perhaps no surprise, is that urban institutions of higher education have begun to endure challenges and inequities that mirror those faced by our feeder schools and districts.
In high schools, white students tend to be concentrated in well-performing schools in the suburbs while urban school districts, filled with lower-income and students of color, are deteriorating. At the postsecondary level, white students crowd the more selective state flagship and research universities. Meanwhile, if they go to college at all, students from traditionally underserved backgrounds often attend institutions with less stringent admission standards and lower retention and graduation rates, including community colleges and urban colleges and universities. The rate of college enrollment in the college-age population in cities is about half of what it is in the suburbs.
Options for low-income and students of color, in high school and college, are becoming separate but not equal to those for white students.
Colorado is a prime example of this distributing paradox. We currently rank in the top five per capita for college-degree holders, yet we’re importing our college graduates. The state ranks near the bottom in the number of low-income students and those from underrepresented backgrounds who go to college.
Part of this results from an educational pipeline in Denver that is more than just leaky; it is spitting out young people at an alarming rate. For example, roughly 30 percent of Denver Public Schools’ Latinos graduate from high school; in contrast, 70 percent of whites do. The student-of-color population, which is 80 percent at Denver Public Schools, drops to 48 percent at Community College of Denver, then to 24 percent at Metropolitan State College of Denver, my institution, which has the largest student-of-color population of any four-year institution in Colorado. In fact, Metro State has more students of color than the University of Colorado at Boulder and Colorado State University combined.
The Conventional Urban Student
Ethnic diversity has become the holy grail of colleges and universities; everyone is trying to get it. A high-achieving high school student of color is the most sought-after demographic in the college applicant pool. And our more prestigious schools are working to increase their matriculation rates of these students.
But what about the conventional student of color who graduates from an urban high school and whose achievements are more modest? These are the students -- place-bound, often of limited economic status and whose preparation for college is less rigorous -- who are largely served by our public urban institutions. In sheer numbers, they dwarf the students of color who attend the more prestigious institutions.
Urban low-income and students of color are coming to college with severe academic deficiencies, particularly in the areas of writing, mathematics and science. Furthermore, many students from economically challenged backgrounds lack college-going family precedent or role models. It is critical that these students have access to full-time faculty of the same ethnic background to serve as peer mentors, helping them navigate the transition from high school to college.
Postsecondary institutions serving large numbers of low-income and students of color are implementing various strategies to address these students’ academic deficiencies. Enhanced orientation programs, peer counselors, mentors, full-time faculty who teach classes at the freshman and sophomore level, learning communities, increased collaboration with urban high school districts and improved coordination with community colleges are all being implemented or enhanced to provide much-needed support for this cohort of students. However, many of these programs are in jeopardy because of limitations in state funding.
This is the case in point: Urban institutions are being asked to do more and more with less and less.
The ‘90s was a decade of dramatic growth in state revenues, yet there was a simultaneous shrinking of their colleges’ share of state budgets, as more programs and services began to compete with higher education for funding.
From 1970 to 2000, government appropriations per student for public higher education institutions increased 3 percent in constant dollars. During the same period, tuition and fees per student increased 99 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In Colorado, the percentage of the state budget going to higher education dropped from 22.4 percent in 1983 to 7.5 percent in 2007.
At the same time that state funding for higher education has been decreasing, the call for “accountability” in higher education is on the rise. State legislatures are expressing more interest in investing in the explicit results that come from public higher-education institutions, rather than investing in higher education itself. For instance, at a recent summit on higher education in Colorado attended by leaders from all the colleges, one proposal put forth would tie supplemental funding to schools proving they are more efficient than their peers and graduating better students.
With state funding squeezed tighter and tighter, many colleges across the country have been able to maintain the status quo only by raising student tuition and fees. However, in urban institutions that serve larger populations of low-income and students of color, the combination of decreased state funding and the continued imperative for lower tuition means a smaller pool of financial resources from which to draw to educate some of our neediest populations. Some institutions, like Metro State, have a statutory obligation to be accessible and keep tuition low with no corollary mandate for adequate funding to provide necessary wrap-around services for students from underserved backgrounds.
Additionally, in Colorado the relative funding by type of higher education institution has shifted. A recent comparison by the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee showed that in the last six years the amount of money, in general fund and tuition per student full-time equivalency, went up for all institutions in Colorado except Metro State, with only a negligible increase for the community colleges.
These relative disparities occurred despite the fact that the community colleges serve more urban and ethnic minority students than the four-year colleges combined, and Metro State is Colorado’s largest urban institution, most diverse four-year institution and educator of the second-largest undergraduate population in the state.
The Joint Budget Committee wrote, “(T)here has been a reallocation of resources among the higher education institutions, whether part of a clearly articulated statewide strategy or a happenstance of many unrelated decisions.”
State legislatures need to start addressing these kinds of inequities, and soon. Leaders in public higher education need to work together to create shared state visions among the research universities, the comprehensive colleges and the urban institutions, particularly to address how states are going to meet the needs of the growing segment of the population that come from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds.
This may seem to be just an urban problem, but it’s not because ultimately it affects all of society on a social and economic level.
For example, college graduates earn almost twice that of high school graduates, have greater purchasing power and produce higher tax revenue. In Colorado, if low-income and students of color graduated and were employed at the same rate as other students, it would annually generate an estimated $967 million in additional tax revenue, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher education. Obviously, it is through education that these at-risk students are able to lift themselves to a higher socioeconomic level. Otherwise, their options are limited to clawing and scraping their way ahead in menial jobs or worse.
The problems in our urban K-12 schools are deep and entrenched; they have been there for decades, for a multitude of reasons. Today our public urban baccalaureate colleges are headed down the same path, thanks to the lack of funding, an increasing number of students needing remedial coursework and the shrinking pipeline to good education available to low-income and students of color in this country. If these issues in higher education are not addressed now, they will become as intractable as those at the “dropout factories” Spellings derides.
One is left to wonder whether the precipitous decline of our public urban institutions of higher education would be allowed to happen if the student populations at these institutions were more affluent and more white.
Stephen Jordan is president of Metropolitan State College of Denver.
On September 24, a perceptive federal judge in California pointed out the obvious and cleared a lot of thick overgrowth from the landscape of postsecondary oversight in the United States. In brief, Judge Margaret Morrow concluded that a state cannot treat regional accreditors differently from each other in order to favor colleges based in the state over those based elsewhere.
Judge Morrow’s preliminary opinion in Daghlian v. DeVry, with which I agree for the most part, concludes that differences among regional accreditors are insufficient to sustain California’s contention that the state can in effect exempt locally based colleges from state oversight because they are accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), while requiring colleges based elsewhere to get state approval to operate because they are accredited by a different regional accreditor.
This decision may cut part of the knot that has plagued proposed revisions of California postsecondary approval laws. WASC has been actively opposing some of the changes, even though they don’t affect WASC schools, apparently on a camel’s nose theory: any hint of state interference in collegiate self-governance must be sprayed with hot and cold running lobbyists. Ultimately, WASC is lobbying the tide not to come in.
The DeVry case may therefore serve to drag into the open one of the less-well-understood aspects of education law and policy. One of the commonest fallacies in higher education, and one which is amazingly ill-understood even by professional educators, is that colleges get to offer degrees because their accreditor allows them to. Not so. Colleges, including private ones, get to offer degrees because state governments give them the authority to do so.
Let me say that again for maximum clarity: Private colleges in the United States have no inherent right to issue degrees. That right comes to them through a grant of authority from a state government. With the exception of Congress and Indian tribes, I know of no other source for degree authority in the United States. The authority may come as a charter, a constitutional provision or a statute, but it must have an origin in state law. No accreditor can give that authority and no accreditor can take it away. Nor can the federal government do either, except for its own colleges.
The federal government recognizes this area of state supremacy in its regulations governing accreditors. A federally recognized accreditor is prohibited by federal rules from accrediting a college unless that college has appropriate state authority to issue degrees prior to accreditation. That is why one current California proposal to allow schools accredited by the Western Association to operate without a separate grant of state authority cannot work. This chicken chasing its own egg is a turkey. Judge Morrow’s preliminary decision serves to add top-quality stuffing to this defunct bureaucratic poultry.
California (and every other state) must formally give authority to issue degrees to every college based in the state that wants to grant degrees. Instead, it seems simpler for states to just punt the function of postsecondary approval to the local accreditor. Sorry, it can’t be done that way. Likewise, accreditors have no ability to grant degree authority to a foreign school -- only the government of the nation, or its properly designated authority, can do that.
In theory, every state diligently determines which colleges can issue degrees and, ideally, exercises at least some baseline quality control. In practice, this does not always happen, and in California today, it can’t happen, for there is no state agency in existence to issue the approval. The consequences are significant.
Right now as I write, it is impossible to start a new degree-granting institution in California, because any such institution requires state approval. It requires state approval not only to get accredited, but to have any legal authority to issue degrees. And it can’t get this approval. On these grounds alone, California is flirting with a Commerce Clause problem: The legislature has de facto protected all existing California colleges from competition. Florida tried this a few years ago and was squashed in federal court.
Also, any California institution that comes up for renewal by its current accreditor has to show that it has current state approval to issue degrees. Some won’t be able to. Even if all parties accepted the convenient but illegal fiction that WASC can stand in for the state, Judge Morrow has killed any attempt by the state to claim that WASC accreditation works as a stopgap but that accreditation by the North Central Association’s Higher Learning Commission doesn’t.
With luck, one side effect of the DeVry case will be to hose out once and for all some of the fictions that states, colleges and accreditors have erected around the curiously opaque process of college and program approval. When the false fronts have collapsed -- the collegial slurry panned for its limited nuggets and the agencies of various states (e.g., loopholed Alabama, grandfathered New Mexico, AWOL Hawaii and disinterested Idaho) subjected to the need to perform -- we can hope for useful changes.
What should emerge from this helpful legal reality check on the role of states and accreditors? First, absolute clarity that each state is legally responsible for the private colleges based there. That includes program quality. No more hibernating under the accreditorial dust storm. Accreditors are owned by their dues-paying member schools and should never be expected to serve as enforcement arms of state or federal governments. They are arms of the colleges, dedicated to advancing the interests of their member schools. There is nothing wrong with that, but let’s give it the right name: a club of schools with similar interests and approaches, not an enforcement body (certainly not of federal standards), and not remotely capable of handling student complaints.
States that have perched primly in the back pews, hands clasped and eyes downcast while the U.S. Department of Education brutalizes accreditors into doing oversight work for which they are unsuited, unfunded and unprepared, need to stop shirking their duties and hoping that the feds will do it for them. Who on earth, looking with unclouded eyes at the federal government, would entrust it with quality control?
I have argued for some time that the Department of Education should make its own decisions about financial aid eligibility based on its own standards, properly enforced by itself. That is a different and appropriate role: You want our money? Here are our rules.
Right now, the Department of Education is incompetent, in the technical sense, to perform college oversight. They can deal, sort of, with the most obvious cases, but they have no real structure in place for meaningful Title IV eligibility oversight. Regional accreditors need not fear losing their recognition, since the feds have no replacement process in place. Therefore regional accreditors and the larger national and specialized accreditors can ignore most federal noises.
Finally, the federal government has no business assuming a duty that constitutionally belongs to the states. The federal government would love to move in on territory that has belonged to the states for over 200 years. It is trying to persuade accreditors to do the dirty work. The states should not let this happen. If Judge Morrow’s case is nominally about the comparability of accreditors, its real impact may be on states that have taken their responsibilities lightly for too long.
Alan Contreras works for the State of Oregon; his views do not necessarily reflect those of the state. His blog is The Oregon Review.
Surveys have found that Americans hold great confidence in the nation’s public colleges and universities; a level shown to surpass even that held for churches, hospitals, the media and all levels of government. That’s good news. But beyond this general high level of confidence, the public seems, at times, deeply ambivalent about universities.
On one hand, there is a cherished and sentimental view of universities as academic places where caring teachers mold young minds through unhurried and probing conversations about poems and politics, the human condition and the forces of nature. In this utopia, a university’s classes are small, tutored by sage and patient scholars; juvenile errors and excesses are gently but firmly corrected; and, of course, football games are always won. And in this romanticized view, lush and leafy campuses are sanctuaries for eccentric intellectuals to think deep thoughts, develop whimsical theories, and indulge in the time-consuming trials and errors of research.
On the other hand, when talk turns to matters of state funding or, even worse, tuition, sweet sentimentalities are replaced by a fulminating call for universities to become ruthlessly efficient – no time or treasure squandered on small classes or idle contemplation or tending to pretty flowers on campus. Things must be run as “lean” as business would have us believe it has become. Fat must be excised, indolence must be punished mercilessly, unnecessary processes must be re-engineered and unnecessary people banished. Over-extended and under-funded state budgets have only served to increase the clamor for universities to become more frugal than friendly. And tax-phobic critics of state government spending, in particular, have elevated the no holds barred efficiency-as-a-mandate rhetoric.
The truth is, of course, that public universities are hardly strangers to frugality and regularly adopt efficiencies in countless ways. A recent study conducted by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and SunGard Higher Education affirms that cost containment is a high priority and that institutions are turning to myriad sources and strategies to restrain spending.
As stewards of the public trust, university leaders and governing board members rightfully should be held accountable for maximizing the purchasing power of public monies. But focusing on efficiency as a prime goal and virtue can divert attention and effort from a university’s essential purpose -- to protect and elevate its primary missions of teaching, learning, research and service.
Can a university be both academic and efficient, both humane and businesslike? The answer is a tentative “yes.” But this is a tricky business, for the very things that produce a university’s greatest value -- intellectual freedom, personal attention to students, time for contemplation and the cultivation of imagination, conservation of our past and insight into our future, and the mistakes and missteps that necessarily precede achievements in research and learning -- do not always conform to the imperatives of tidy management and steely cost-cutting techniques.
Universities are not manufacturing plants. While the raw material of business and industry often have predictable destinations, the raw material of universities -- namely young or young-at-heart men and women -- are subject to the great forces of human nature: ego and altruism, impulse and emotion, to name but a few. A piece of metal stamping on an assembly line cannot change its intentions to become a car door, a filing cabinet or a piece of art. A college sophomore, however, may very well alter his or her intended destination from being an accountant, to that of an English teacher, scientist, nurse, poet, parent or politician. What about the student who enrolls in a couple of extra courses that personally interest her, who therefore passes up the more direct route for her chosen degree and in the process delays graduation by a year? Higher education’s productivity auditors likely equate such dalliance with inefficiency. But what if in so doing, the student gained a clearer perspective of her life’s direction?
The cries for increased accountability and the reporting of metrics aimed at neatly calculating the return on public investment made to universities continue to increase. However, the output generated by universities is often difficult to quantify; not all efforts are calculable on a dollar-for-dollar return on investment basis.
Granting too much focus on the economic returns of higher education misses the point, for any attempt to quantify the contributions the collegiate experience makes in the everyday lives of citizens is much more of a qualitative than a quantitative endeavor. What about those programs and “products” that do not lend themselves to the orderly application of valued-added calculations? Few would question the value of university efforts in the info-bio-nano technologies, which invoke visions of cutting-edge products and services and spin-off commercial ventures. But what about programs in Middle Eastern studies? What’s the financial bottom line on a greater understanding of cultures in the Middle East? Programs of study on topics such as this surely do not serve as university profit centers. And what’s the value of a thoughtful term paper, or a stunning insight into the meaning of a historic event, or the value of a poem?
There is another, perhaps even greater, irony in all this. The evidence is not at all clear that “efficiency,” as commonly understood in business jargon, is in any way rewarded by the higher education “marketplace.” Imagine, for example, the least efficient institution of higher education in your state. Chances are that the teaching loads of its high-paid faculty are largely discretionary and barely measurable, with faculty efforts focused instead on the publication of esoteric thoughts in widely-unread journals; its library contains hundreds of thousands of volumes that haven’t been opened in decades; it has well manicured lawns and, probably, a facility that seats tens of thousands of people but is only used five or six Saturdays each year (hint–think football stadium). Imagine then, the most “efficient” higher education institution in your state. It likely has under-paid faculty with teaching loads that approach sweat-shop labor conditions; it may well be housed in a store-front; its library might be little more than a set of encyclopedias; and it is marketing hard for a student body that will keep it marginally solvent.
Now ... which one has accomplished students waiting with baited breath for word of a favorable admissions decision? Which one receives tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in largesse from loyal alumni or proud donors each year? Which one commands the almost slavish allegiance of those very state legislators who cheer loudly from prime seats at athletic pageants but publicly threaten to discipline their spendthrift habits? Is “efficiency” -- in a business definition -- really recognized or rewarded in the higher education marketplace?
The fact is that not all efforts borne out of universities can be precisely summed up on some auditor’s balance sheet. Universities offer a different and much more complicated value proposition. Their “core business” is the development of human potential, their “products” are ideas and discoveries and the professionals who teach our children and treat our sicknesses and manage our businesses and create wealth and create art. Human beings are, alas, sometimes untidy, vexatious, troublesome; and humane values sometimes require more patience than might best serve some bottom line.
This is not a justification of waste or an excuse for wastrels. Universities should be expected to spend money sensibly. But in the rush to economize, even during hard times, we ought not lose sight of the primary value the public seeks and expects from our universities.
The reason universities have earned the public’s confidence, the reason hundreds and hundreds of thousands of alumni of our nation’s public universities are proud of their alma maters, the reason families sacrifice to send their sons and daughters to our campuses is not because universities function as well-oiled machines, not because they trim every expense and fill every idle minute during the academic day and year. It is because these unique and special and fragile institutions are there at the very instant when people, at their most promising and vulnerable moments, come seeking their futures, come ready to become something more, something better.
And as they become more, and better, so do we all.
Eric Gilbertson and Daniel Hurley
Eric Gilbertson is president of Saginaw Valley State University. Daniel Hurley is director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
Can you believe that the State of Washington actually wants to tax Microsoft? Doesn’t Washington realize that by taxing Microsoft it risks pushing the company to move its headquarters to a lower tax state? And even if Microsoft doesn’t pay taxes it still contributes to the state in many ways by, for example, promoting knowledge creation. Washington wants Microsoft to pay huge sums in taxes just because Microsoft earns astronomic profits. But Microsoft earned these profits through diligence and intelligence. Does Washington really want to punish Microsoft for its hard-earned success?
Washington State, of course, does tax Microsoft. And if Microsoft tried to get out of paying all taxes many college professors would curse the firm for displaying such naked greed. But Harvard University, the Microsoft of the educational world, feels itself entitled to tax exemption.
Some Massachusetts legislators want to tax rich colleges. Under their proposal, as reported on Inside Higher Ed, Massachusetts colleges would pay a 2.5 percent tax on all assets over $1 billion. (The idea is part of a broader push to question whether some colleges with hefty endowments are inappropriately hoarding wealth while continuing to raise their tuitions sharply.) Nine schools, including Harvard and Smith College (my employer), are wealthy enough to be subject to the tax.
The tax would harm higher education in Massachusetts. But almost all taxes inflict harm. Taxing software companies, for example, reduces their output and increases their prices.
Kevin Casey, Harvard's associate vice president for government, community and public affairs, opposes the tax and was quoted in The Boston Globe as saying, “You'd be taxing success here.” But almost all taxes are taxes on success. For example, I just wrote an economics textbook. If the book sells well it will greatly increase my income and so cause me to pay higher Massachusetts taxes. Massachusetts, therefore, would tax my textbook success. But if you want the wealthy to pay more in taxes than the non-wealthy, then you must support taxing financial success.
Kevin Casey also believes that the tax would harm Massachusetts by damaging “stable bedrock institutions." But organizations such as Microsoft could also use this "bedrock institution" argument to argue for their own tax exemption.
Richard J. Doherty, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, correctly pointed out that the tax would damage one of the strongest parts of the Massachusetts economy. He said, “It's like Florida taxing oranges.”
Florida, however, does tax its orange industry. A state that didn’t tax its most successful industries would have to impose higher taxes on less successful businesses and so would further impede these businesses’ fortunes.
Taxes are like poison. Taking a lot is fatal, but exposure to small quantities only moderately harms health. The best way for a government to tax, therefore, is for it to spread around its tax poison broadly so no entity must consume too much of it. If Massachusetts is determined to collect a certain amount of taxes from organizations (such as corporations), then it will do less harm if it forces all organizations to pay a little than if it mandates that a subset pay a lot.
A tax on elite colleges would reduce inequality. Students who attend top schools have vastly higher lifetime incomes than other Americans do. And even if the tax reduced financial aid and so increased student borrowing, it would still reduce inequality because those who graduate from elite schools with large debts are much better off financially than are their peers who do not attend college.
The Harvard economics professor Greg Mankiw has suggested that the tax could cause Harvard to move to another state. But whenever a state taxes a business it risks causing the business to flee.
Colleges, I suspect, are far less likely than businesses are to leave a state because of adverse conditions. Yale and the University of Chicago would surely pay a hefty tax to turn their crime-ridden neighborhoods into versions of Stanford’s Palo Alto. Yet both these schools stay put, even when nearly any similarly situated multi-billion-dollar business that sought to attract the best and the brightest (and often the richest) would have long ago moved to more pleasant surroundings.
In his blog Mankiw also writes of how another Harvard professor thinks his institution should act if taxed: This professor proposes that “Harvard can decide to no longer accept the children of Massachusetts residents.” Well, just imagine the reaction if Microsoft, in its anger over being taxed by Washington state, even joked about boycotting all Washington customers.
Although I support taxing rich colleges, I believe there are better ways of doing it than through imposing a wealth tax on endowments. As Mankiw wrote to me, many economists believe it inefficient for governments to tax savings. I would prefer if Massachusetts imposed a sales tax on tuitions. Such a tax might appeal to politicians who don’t begrudge elite colleges their huge wealth but do feel the schools should spend more of their capital on students by, for example, charging low tuitions.
As summer reaches its mid-point, selected high ranking U.S. House and Senate members continue to work on finalizing massive legislation to renew the Higher Education Act, which has already gone through seven extensions this year. One of the few primary issues still being debated is the “State Commitment to Affordable College Education Amendment,” commonly known as the “Maintenance of Effort” provision. The provision seeks to hold states accountable for maintaining certain levels of tax support for higher education, and I believe it is essential for the future of public higher education.
The maintenance of effort provision, which was advanced by Rep. George Miller of California, Rep. John Tierney of Massachusetts and supported by members of both parties on the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor, is premised on the fact that the most significant factor impacting the rapidly rising cost of college education for nearly 80 percent of the higher education population has been the relentless decline in commitment on the part of most state governments to maintain requisite levels of public funding. The result of this long-term decreasing commitment has been that in many states, as state appropriations have dwindled, public university tuition and fees have skyrocketed. This trend has effectively shifted the burden of funding higher education from the general public to the student.
What Representatives Miller, Tierney and other bipartisan members of the House Education and Labor Committee have figured out is that billions in new student aid dollars will have little effect on the expansion of educational opportunity if state legislatures continue to consistently reduce their fiscal commitment to higher education. Essentially, MOE is a first step in holding states accountable for retaining given levels of appropriations for their own students. The perversity of the present system is that as state legislatures lower their fiscal effort or do not provide adequate support for increasing student populations, tuitions and fees subsequently rise, and as a result most federal student aid programs are tapped at higher levels further indebting ever more students and with greater average debt.
Many state officials have become savvy about the process. In fact, I was told by a very high ranking member of the state legislature in Kentucky a couple of years ago that he did not need to provide additional tax support for public universities since the institutions themselves had the ability to increase their own student tuition and acquire the funds through the federal tuition-based aid programs. This “supplanting” of state support with federal tuition-based program support occurs more readily when state economies are bad or simply when legislators, by whim or fancy, refuse to provide the appropriate levels of public tax support, knowing full well that public universities will in response raise student tuition and fees to provide essential funds.
As a consequence, additional fiscal burdens are placed directly on students and indirectly on the federal government to offset what states fail to provide. This has been a pattern over the last three decades as increases in state legislative appropriations have been unreliable and state institutions are sent scrambling for needed revenues. The maintenance of effort provision has the potential to place pressure, through the secretary of education, to better stabilize state appropriations by means of federal disincentives through the use of Leveraging Educational Assistance Program funds and other programs, or incentives when new federal funds are made available in the future.
Supporters of the MOE provision include the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, which represents the majority of public universities nationwide, and numerous national student organizations. Opposition to the inclusion of the MOE Amendment is spearheaded by the National Governors Association and Council of State Governments, who have the obvious interest in seeing that billions in funding should continue to flow freely without strings. This no-strings approach is, of course, extremely attractive to states that continue to reduce their commitment to public higher education by shifting the financial responsibility away from themselves.
Strong opposition also resonates from the “states’ rights” element that insists that the federal government should not have such fiscal leverage over states. Leading this charge is Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who as U.S. secretary of education favored the elimination of the Department of Education and represents a state that is constantly last, or near last, among the 50 states in its tax effort to support public education at virtually all levels.
Legislators, such as Senator Alexander, who argue that states should receive federal funding without a corresponding fiscal commitment to higher education actually perceive that this anti-state tax effort strategy is good public policy. Unfortunately, in this system, the students are the ultimate losers as college affordability declines and federal direct student aid dollars are increasingly rendered less effective.
Many opponents of this amendment also insist that the MOE provision is precedent setting and represents a new dimension of federal encroachment in state sovereignty. In fact, concerns about the federal government holding states fiscally accountable is not new and has been a staple of education and welfare legislation for many decades. In 1965 the Elementary and Secondary Education Act carried with it a maintenance of effort provision that forbade states to supplant their own funding with federal dollars. Over the last four decades, these supplanting provisions have been upheld and enforced by federal courts on numerous occasions. Medicaid, and other federal funding measures operate in similar fashion making it difficult for state legislatures to cut funding without federal fiscal consequences.
In summary, maintenance of effort is an essential component for ensuring that states are held accountable for their funding of higher education. This amendment, if used effectively by blending both fiscal disincentives and incentives, will make states think twice before cutting higher education appropriations and should have an attendant effect of better stabilizing state higher education finding. The true winners will be, of course, the students, but in the broader context the spillover beneficiaries from state fiscal stabilization and enhancements to higher education will be the entire social and economic system.
F. King Alexander
F. King Alexander is president of California State University at Long Beach.