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.
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.
In forming a strategy to deal with the severe economic downturn, President-elect Obama and his evolving brain trust of economic advisers should recall the largely successful and innovative efforts by federal and state governments to avoid a projected steep post-World War II recession -- in particular, the key role given to higher education.
Beginning in earnest in 1944, many leaders in Washington and in the state capitals throughout the nation worried about a return to Depression-era unemployment rates -- President Roosevelt included.
There are many reasons that the expected deep recession eventually turned into the beginning of an economic boom in the US after the war, including high saving rates during the war with the result of unanticipated and pent-up consumer demand. But another reason was proactive efforts to mitigate feared unemployment rates, to support industries with growth potential, and to fund yet another round of infrastructure development and expand public services.
One of the most important salves that came out of that era of policy making, one that provides a guide for our present predicament, was the embrace of large-scale investments and innovative policies by both federal and state governments to promote greater access to higher education.
The famed GI Bill, for example, was not simply an effort to open new opportunities for deserving returning veterans -- many of whom had delayed their education or needed new skills to enter the job market. The unprecedented investment by the federal government in providing grants for college had another important purpose: to reduce projected unemployment rolls and, at the same time, help restructure the U.S. labor market by producing a more skilled labor force.
State governments acted as a partner in that macroeconomic strategy. Under the leadership of Gov. Earl Warren, for instance, California expanded markedly the physical capacity of their public higher education systems by establishing new campuses, hiring new faculty, eventually creating their own scholarship programs to supplant the GI Bill, and subsequently reaping tremendous economic and social benefits from the investment in human capital.
The Role of Higher Education in National Economic Recovery Today
That basic strategy of expanding funding for individuals to attend a college or university and to get a degree, and funding the expansion of higher education institutions, is a key component thus far missing in the national debate over the route to economic recovery.
Expanding higher education funding and enrollment capacity may be as important as any other policy lever to cope with an economic downturn, including funding for infrastructure. Any new federal initiative to boost access could also be designed for an immediate impact on the economy.
The overall educational attainment of a nation is, in fact, much more important today than some 60 years ago. Broad access is increasingly viewed as vital for socioeconomic mobility and demand for higher education generally goes up during economic downturns. Individuals who lose their jobs, or fear low prospects for employment in declining economies, see a university or college degree as a means to better employment prospects.
In some significant measure, it is likely that enrollment demand will go up, particularly in the public higher education sector, because tuition costs are generally much lower than in the private independent and for-profit sectors. We are already seeing evidence that many students who had planned to attend private or out-of-state public colleges will turn to cheaper in-state options.
Yet most state and local governments are in the midst of wholesale cutting of their budgets, the initial rounds of large and succeeding cuts to their public higher education systems.
To make ends meet, places like CSU simply cannot afford more part-time, let alone full-time, faculty to teach the classes -- this despite a 20 percent increase in freshman applications over last year. In the face of this significant rise in demand, CSU plans to cut its enrollment by some 10,000 students. That would mean a net 10 percent cut in total freshman admitted for 2009-10 over this academic year. Most CSU undergraduates are in their mid-20s, meaning some sizable number of students will be displaced, forced into an eroding labor market.
CSU’s planned limit on enrollment is in reaction to successive years of major budget cuts, including a mid-year cut of some $66 million and probably larger cuts next academic year. CSU already took a $31.3 million cut earlier this year.
The ten-campus University of California system might follow suit. Adjusted for inflation and enrollment growth, state funding on a per-student basis at UC has fallen nearly 40 percent since 1990 -- from $15,860 in 1990 to $9,560 today in current, inflation-adjusted dollars. The UC president and the Board of Regents have made preliminary threats of a similar reduction to that of CSU in freshman admissions that would equate to a 6 percent overall reduction in the universities' system-wide undergraduate enrollment.
Admittedly, such threats in the past have acted as negotiating positions with the state legislature and governor. But these are not ordinary times, and this is not an ordinary recession.
The net effect of any enrollment caps in the public four-year institutions is a seemingly unrealistic expectation that California’s community colleges will act as a buffer, absorbing the spill-off of students denied admission at UC and CSU and the general rise in demand for higher education. That won’t happen.
California’s community colleges are already facing initial cuts of $332.2 million. There will be no additional funding for expanding the community colleges, with one estimate that more than 250,000 students will be turned away -- the colleges will be cutting the number of part-time lecturers in the midst of unprecedented demand for classes. I sense that that number will be much larger without a proactive mitigation.
A similar cascading scenario will occur across the nation. Millions of students are already flocking to community colleges and public universities at a time of midyear cuts that are forcing colleges to lay off faculty members and cut classes; many higher education institutions are already freezing enrollment.
In New York, Gov. David Paterson faces a large budget deficit and plans midyear cuts of some $348 million in the budget for the State University of New York’s 64-campus system and the City University of New York. This comes on top of some $196 million in cuts made earlier in this fiscal year. All of this will have an impact on access and enrollment rates.
After a long period of declining public financing for higher education on a per student basis, most public universities and colleges have little room to yet again do more with less. State budget cuts for higher education already in the works will undoubtedly have a negative impact on student access rates for this academic year. But the largest impact will come in 2009-10 when tumbling state budget allocations will correspond with rising demand for higher education.
Beyond bonds for construction, most states, like California, have severe limits on borrowing. Most must provide balanced budgets under their state constitutions. Some may raise taxes to cover growing real and projected deficits; but most will cut deeply into public expenditures, including education.
Public university and college systems in California and other states are no longer interested in pitching in to expand enrollment without the resources; now they are pushing back under the rubric of self-preservation. Every institution is increasingly sensing that they are on their own, and not part of a collective effort to serve a state, to serve a nation. No one that I am aware of has modeled the potential impact of this cascading effect of the disparate actions of state governments, multi-campus systems, and individual institutions cutting budgets and cutting enrollment.
The traditional lever of public college and universities to help cope with declining state and local revenues is to raise tuition and fees. However, I sense that we are at a point where significant fee increases, matched by rising unemployment rates and continued constrictions in credit markets, will cause a huge, artificial downward pressure on the ability of students to enroll in all types of institutions -- from community colleges to major selective universities. Further, additional tuition revenue will likely not cover the added cost of expanding classes and campus infrastructure required to meet enrollment demand.
Would it be smart to constrict access to higher education just when unemployment rates are potentially peaking?
U.S. Lags Behind Other Nations
The U.S. is already lagging behind many international competitors in the number of students entering and, even more importantly, graduating with a college degree. Less than two decades ago, America had the highest rate not only of students who entered a college or university, but also of those who then actually earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. Now the U.S. ranks a rather meager 16th in the percentage of young people who get a degree – behind Australia, Iceland, New Zealand, Finland, Denmark, Poland, the Netherlands, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden, Israel, Hungary, and Japan. Indeed, and sadly, the U.S. is one of the few OECD nations in which the older generation has achieved higher rates of education attainment than the younger generation.
Here is the gist of the problem: too few students who graduate from high school; too many part-time students; too high a proportion of students (nearly 50 percent) in two-year community colleges, most never getting a degree; too many part-time faculty; an absence of long-term goals at the national level and by state governments regarding higher education access and graduation rates; and to date no well-conceived funding models to assure quality.
This is a problem that needs national leadership. The U.S. continues to grow in population. Today, the U.S. enrolls about 19 million students in degree-granting colleges and universities. If current participation rates remain flat, and states and federal governments don’t cut further the budgets for higher education, we would grow by about 2.5 million students over the next 15 years. But if the U.S. were to match the progress of our economic competitors and expand access to its growing population, one study indicates it would need to grow by more than 10 million students.
The deleterious effects of further and large-scale cuts to higher education, combined with modest improvements to an already inadequate financial aid system for low- and middle-income students, would pose a triple hit for the U.S.
First, access and graduate rates would decline in the near and possibly long term, depending on the depth of the economic collapse and the actions of government. The U.S. already has the highest percentage of part-time students among those enrolled in higher education when compared to economic competitors -- not by choice largely, but a result of personal economic necessity. This indicates the fragility of current access rates.
Second, unemployment rates would climb higher and probably have disproportionate effects on working- and middle-class students
Third, depending on the actions of other economic competitors, most of whom have concrete national policies to expand higher education access and graduation rates (the U.S. has no such policy), the U.S. will accelerate its international decline in overall educational attainment.
A Happier Scenario
Another and much happier scenario, however, would be that the federal government, in partnership with state governments, view higher education as a vital component for economic recovery and long-term prosperity -- on par with new investments in infrastructure and stop-gap measures to stabilize housing and credit markets.
How to adequately assess options and their costs and benefits is a complicated question. For example, what would be the potential impact of greater, or lower, access to college on, for instance, unemployment rates?
At the same time, the incoming Obama administration must decide among a growing number of economic recovery initiatives, each with their own interest groups and heartfelt supporters. Everyone has his or her hand out. Weighing the benefits and costs of competing demands for federal tax dollars will be increasingly difficult.
An exploratory Commission on Higher Education, not unlike what President Harry Truman formed in 1946 but with more urgency, and possibly an initial budget overseen by the new secretary of education, could provide a larger vision and contemplate a range of options -- big-picture analysis that the myopic Spellings Commission simply ignored in its fixation with creating new accountability regimes. Accountability is not an end, but a means, and that was seemingly lost on Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, the commission’s leadership, and a cadre of higher education pundits.
President-elect Barack Obama has repeatedly noted the importance of raising educational attainment rates, and improving the quality of education in the U.S.. The Obama campaign did offer a number of important policy initiatives related to higher education. These included greater reliance on direct loans from the federal government (instead of subsidizing private bank loans), a long-overdue simplification of federal financial aid forms by linking applications to tax filings, marginal funding for community colleges to create more job- oriented programs, indexing Pell Grant maximum awards to the rate of inflation, and offering a one-time refundable tax credit of $4,000 to a student who agrees to 100 hours of public service over two years.
These are all good ideas. But they are simply not enough in light of mega-trends in the economy and America’s underperformance in education.
Short-term and immediate policies could include significant directed subsidization via state governments of their public higher education sectors relative to projected near term enrollment demand -- to essentially stop states or major public universities from capping enrollment or turning away large numbers of students. Federal Pell Grants for low-income students, already severely underfunded relative to demand, could be increased significantly in the amount awarded and the number of students receiving aid.
Resources for direct loans could be substantially expanded and made more generous with the possibility of a one-time grant for middle-income students to attend a participating public or accredited private institution that would also receive a small federal allocation. In return, these institutions would promise to reduce tuition for students enrolled in the federal program -- perhaps by 5 percent for publics, and 10 percent for selective privates. Such programs, like the GI Bill, helped to galvanize the higher education institutions in the nation, public and private, into understanding their distinct and significant role in real and anticipated hard times.
Another idea might be to tie federal unemployment compensation with access to an accredited higher education institution -- perhaps targeted to certain groups as an option.
Any infrastructure investment initiative should also focus a portion of its portfolio to support public college and university building programs that expand enrollment capacity, like classrooms, or meet research and faculty needs -- such as offices and research labs. Such a program would reflect the federal government’s brief but important investment in university and college building programs during the mid-1960s and could require matching funding from state governments or private enterprise.
There is always the question of whether to fund the individual students or institutions. Past federal policy has focused on funding of grants and loans to individuals. But there is urgency to venture, at least on a temporary basis, into funding key and largely public institutions -- the main providers who have explicit public purposes.
Long-term goals need to assess the overall health of the U.S.’s still famous, but strained, higher education system and what national and state goals might be conjured. In states with projected long-term and large population growth, like Florida, California and Texas, there has been no coordinated assessment of actual enrollment capacity. Can they grow to meet ambitious efforts to increase educational attainment levels? What would constitute a “smart growth” approach to capacity building?
Cost containment in higher education, particularly among selective institutions, and how to finance public higher education is also an important long-term policy issue that needs a macro-view. But the vast majority of public higher education, I would argue, is vastly underfunded, and not, as many critics like to crow, overtly inefficient.
What alternative models are there for financing public higher education? A national consideration of alternative funding models could help guide states, and public and private institutions, toward a funding scheme that aligns with a national goal for educational attainment. This could include providing states with guidelines and models of best practices. Issues related to fees and tuition in public colleges and universities, for instance, are almost hopelessly mired in state politics, and often misguided analysis on affordability.
For good and bad, the U.S. higher education system has been relatively stable over the past 50-plus years, subject to only marginal efforts at reform and reorganization. Stability is important for institution-building and focusing on the quality of what institutions are designated to do within their respective state network of public and private colleges and universities. But the lack of innovation and serious consideration of the overall fit of the current system with current and future economic and socio-economic mobility needs of society is already proving to be a significant problem for the U.S. -- one among many.
States should not be left on their own to reinvigorate and use their higher education systems to mitigate the economic downturn or to, essentially, chart the future labor force and, ultimately, competitiveness of the US. Simply stated, they are not now capable of charting aggressive and enlightened policies related to higher education like they did in the now very distant past. As noted, they are hampered by growing and competing demands for the tax dollar including health care, prisons, and they face significant limits on their ability to launch a spending program suitable for meeting rising enrollment demand.
Further, states generally lack a broad understanding or concern regarding issues related to national competitiveness and the larger problems of growing social and economic stratification. Arguably, now is the time for strategic period of federal government investment, targeted to individual students and supporting colleges and universities.
What will other nations do with their network of universities and colleges in the midst of the unprecedented turn in the global economy? The jury is out. Perhaps a few nations, and in particular their ministries of education, have grasped the role of higher education for mitigating the severe economic swing we are experiencing now. They will redouble their efforts to expand the role of higher education during the economic downturn, or at least protect that sector from large cuts in funding.
Those nations that resort to uncoordinated and reactionary cutting of funding, and reductions in access, will find themselves at a disadvantage for dealing with impact of the worldwide recession, and will lose ground in the race to develop human capital suitable for the modern era.
Like the Roosevelt and later Truman presidential administrations, the incoming Obama administration should more fully integrate higher education policy into its economic recovery strategy. The U.S. is at a critical juncture in effectively combating the severity of the economic downturn, and higher education will either be an important mitigation, or a large-scale drag on economic recovery. What is missing thus far is the national leadership that can do something proactive.
John Aubrey Douglass
John Aubrey Douglass’ most recent book is The Conditions for Admissions: Access, Equity, and the Social Contract of Public Universities (Stanford Press). He writes about global trends in higher education. A version of this paper was published by UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education in its on-line Research and Occasional Paper Series.
For the 11th time since World War II, boom has turned to bust in our economy. Recession brings change in both the public and private sectors, as industries and government are forced to rethink how and to whom they deliver products and services. The current recession will be no exception.
Higher education’s response to economic downturns, however, has changed little. States and their colleges and universities have used the same strategy in every recession of the past generation, doing less of the same -- reducing access, cutting programs and services -- and charging students and their families more. During each of the last three recessions, average tuition and fees at public colleges and universities have climbed nearly 25 percent, and enrollment has fallen in two of these recessions.
Choosing retrenchment over reform has helped to make college more expensive and less accessible and affordable. Since the last recession of 2001, the U.S. has fallen to tenth in the percentage of young adults with a college degree, the share of income needed for the poorest family to pay public college expenses after financial aid has jumped from 39 percent to 55 percent, and student loan borrowing has nearly doubled.
The world surrounding higher education has changed significantly since the last recession, in ways that make a repeat of past behavior riskier than before.
Eight years ago, the knowledge economy was still developing, and the Baby Boomers -- our best-educated generation -- were still in the prime of their working lives. Today, half of the fastest-growing jobs require education beyond high school, and the first of the Baby Boomers will reach retirement age in just two years. This means that millions of college-educated workers will be needed to fill new and existing jobs, and our current completion rates won’t meet that need.
Eight years ago, two-thirds of Americans believed that success in the work force didn’t require a college degree and a majority thought that qualified students could get to and through college. Today, more than half of Americans say that a college education is essential, and two-thirds say that eligible students are being shut out of college. The public’s demand for access to higher education and their confidence in colleges’ and universities’ ability to deliver it are on a collision course.
Despite these warning signs, we’re already seeing history repeat itself. Lawmakers in Florida are moving to allow every public university to increase tuition by as much as 15 percent per year despite widespread public opposition. Three of the nation’s largest public university systems -- the University of California, California State University, and Arizona State University -- are proceeding with plans to cap or cut enrollment amid rapid growth in their states’ college-going populations.
How do we break this cycle and redefine higher education’s response to financial crisis? It will require strong leadership at the state, system, and campus levels, focusing on priorities, productivity, and innovation.
Setting priorities involves hard choices. We believe that in the current financial crisis, ensuring accessible and affordable undergraduate education must be the highest priority. States should not cut higher education disproportionately compared to other state services and rely on students to make up the difference through tuition hikes. Colleges and universities should share resources to ensure that every eligible student can enroll, and redirect resources from high cost, low need graduate and research programs to undergraduate instruction. Both should make financial need the top priority for their student aid funds.
We see encouraging signs on this front. Governors in Maryland, Michigan, and Missouri have proposed shielding higher education from cuts in exchange for tuition freezes. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Ed Rendell has proposed a bold effort to increase need-based aid for students attending community and state colleges.
Gauging and increasing productivity is also a must. State, system, and campus leaders need to look at how money is being spent and the results of that spending, rather than simply focusing on revenues. They must also set clear expectations for institutions to regularly review these data and use them to reform or eliminate high cost, low performing programs and reinvest the savings in areas consistent with state needs and priorities.
There are positive developments in this area as well. The National Association of System Heads is working with public university systems in nearly 20 states to better measure and manage costs as part of a broader push to improve participation and completion rates for underrepresented students. One of the participating systems -- Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning -- has changed its budget development process to include a focus on institutional spending, not just campus wish lists.
The third -- and perhaps most important -- element is innovation. Our colleges and universities are renowned for the innovations that they bring to other fields, but they focus relatively little on their own reinvention. Many promising initiatives, including dual high school/college enrollment and course redesign, operate on marginal dollars in good times and are the first to be cut when budgets tighten.
Here again, some states are showing leadership. Policy makers in Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas are exploring new funding models that would include real incentives for retaining and graduating students, not just enrolling them.
Recessions are inevitable, but our responses to them are not. Policy makers and higher education leaders who once again decide to do less of the same and charge more for it will tell us that they had no other choice. But we know that just isn’t true.
Patrick M. Callan and Robert H. Atwell
Patrick M. Callan is president of the non-profit, non-partisan National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Robert H. Atwell is president emeritus of the American Council on Education, serves on the National Center’s board of directors, and chairs the board of directors of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity, and Accountability.
Our nation’s system of public higher education is in crisis. Unprecedented funding cuts give us several reasons to be concerned: First, about 70 percent of American college students attend public colleges and universities, which means more than 12 million students may be directly affected. Second, many public institutions produce a wealth of valuable research that serves as an engine for both regional and national economic growth.
Less well known is that the crisis in the publics has the potential to undermine the high quality of American higher education as a whole. While state budget cuts may appear to be aimed at the publics, we will all be poorer if our renowned system is allowed to falter. As a result, everyone in the academy -- even those of us in private institutions -- should be thinking of ways to revitalize public higher education.
While there is talk in academic circles of various reforms, two specific changes would go a long way toward helping public institutions strengthen their positions: revamping public university governance, and establishing a progressive tuition structure.
A diversified model
Anyone who spends time outside the U.S. knows that American higher education remains the envy of the world. One of the characteristics that distinguishes our system from others is that the U.S. does not have a centralized approach to higher education. There is no government minister who provides a uniform curriculum or one national research agenda.
The American system is decentralized, which allows for a diversity of approaches and a significant amount of experimentation and innovation. It also fosters healthy competition. Small schools compete with large schools; publics compete with privates; comprehensive universities compete with liberal arts colleges. And there is spirited competition within these groups.
The result is an educational richness not found in other parts of the world. Some liberal arts programs specialize in teaching great books, while others excel in music and the arts. Other institutions become known for their scientific or technical degrees. There are different learning models as well, ranging from traditional classroom education to experiential learning, which involves the integration of classroom study and real-world experience.
There is no one-size-fits-all -- our students are free to choose from a wide range of educational models best suited to their learning styles and future aspirations.
The same dynamic is present in research. Although federal support for university research is a key component -- and there are certainly government research priorities -- there is ample room for faculty- and institution-driven initiatives. Myriad government and private funding sources provide support for a range of different priorities and possibilities. Some institutions are powerhouses in energy or life sciences, while others focus research efforts on economics, agriculture or urban issues.
A threat to our leadership position
Like most competitive models, the American approach to higher education works best when there is a degree of equilibrium within the system -- robust peer groups that force creativity and innovation. When a substantial sector of the group is weakened, disequilibrium is introduced, which threatens the competitive dynamic.
This is what we’re seeing today as the nation’s public institutions struggle financially. Nearly 40 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities are public institutions -- a substantial share of the overall system.
It is certainly true that private institutions have not been immune from the current downturn. We’re all aware that endowments have plummeted, fundraising is flat, and demand for financial aid has increased, putting additional pressure on strained budgets. But the public crisis appears to be both broader and deeper, with the potential to be with us for years to come.
The state of California provides the starkest example. This year, $800 million in funding cuts have forced furloughs of faculty and staff in both the UC and Cal State systems. This means that classes will become even more crowded and faculty members -- already stretched thin -- will have less time to work closely with students.
There will also be an increase in the number of students turned away. The UC system alone (not including Cal State schools or community colleges) is planning to reduce freshman enrollment by 6 percent. In a system of 220,000 students this amounts to more than 13,000 people who will be denied access.
The pain is by no means limited to California. Across the country -- from Michigan to Wisconsin to Virginia -- states are facing revenue shortfalls and making significant cuts to higher education. Even $825 million in federal stimulus -- the portion targeted for all of higher education -- is not enough to offset the extensive cuts made by state governments.
The timing could not be worse. President Obama has underscored what those of us in higher education know to be true: the nation’s economic prosperity is dependent on our system of higher education. The president has noted that jobs requiring a college degree are growing at twice the rate of jobs that require no higher education.
It is the quality of the American system that will develop the human capital needed for our economy to recover and prosper over the long term.
Opportunities for change
Of course, with every crisis comes opportunity. The current situation can pave the way for public higher education to gain some much-needed flexibility and autonomy. By unshackling these systems from some state-mandated controls, they can be revitalized and continue to play an essential role in ensuring the success of American higher education.
We will see a range of innovations such as three-year degree programs, the concept of “cyber campuses,” and more nonresidential education. Each has the potential to reduce costs or generate revenue -- or both.
More fundamental changes will be needed. Two in particular will give public institutions greater control over their own destinies. The first will be effective in the short term, while the second will empower public institutions to introduce and support long-term innovations:
Progressive tuition: We are seeing many public systems raise fees as one way to shore up their finances. But this regressive approach runs the risk of reducing access for those already struggling to pay for college. Another option would be for publics to raise tuition, while providing more need-based financial aid. By pledging that students from families earning under a certain amount -- say $100,000 -- can attend at no cost (and those above a certain threshold would pay on a sliding scale) public colleges can generate valuable revenue, while maintaining the all-important mission of access.
Reform governance: Board members at public institutions are primarily political appointees. While most are knowledgeable and dedicated, the political process by which they are appointed often results in a divergence of views and priorities. Allowing presidents, chancellors, and existing board members to appoint trustees -- standard practice at most private colleges and universities -- would strengthen the ability of public boards to play a strategic role in guiding their institutions.
More than ever, the country needs higher education to do what it does best: develop human and intellectual capital, and be the engine of progress for the nation. The future of American higher education -- and indeed the nation -- will depend on our ability to maintain a vibrant, diverse and competitive model of higher learning.
Both private and public institutions are critical in this endeavor and must be empowered to succeed.
Joseph E. Aoun
Joseph E. Aoun is president of Northeastern University.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan delivered a tough message to state colleges last month: Despite the cascading effects of the recession falling hardest on state governments, states should not expect the federal government to provide stopgap money to maintain business as usual. Duncan advised states to get creative.
Lumina Foundation for Education agrees. To increase the percentage of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials to 60 percent by 2025, as President Obama aims to do, the nation needs quantum improvements in productivity.
We believe states must lead the way. In our experience working in and with state government, the first and hardest step toward productive creativity is penetrating inertia. When the going gets tough, there is comfort in the status quo. Working with HCM Strategists, a public policy consulting firm, we have made $9 million in grants to states as a testament to creative, courageous state leaders, and a talented, fresh team of “inertia busters.”
The “inertia busters” embody the skill set we believe is necessary to promote and deliver on the state higher education policy changes this nation needs.
This means assembling a team that included a former chief of staff to a governor, Jimmy Clarke, who knows how to run interference for politicians; a grass-roots advocate for change Ellyn Artis; a higher education faculty member Mario Martinez; and a director of a federal regional education lab, Rob Muller.
Their role was to promote and advance innovative ideas and strong leadership. As constructive critics and fierce advocates, the inertia busters helped open the door for elected officials to seize the incredible moment for change posed by the confluence of a deep recession and ambitious national degree attainment goals. By simply focusing on the change that is needed now, this team busted inertia in several ways.
1. Maintaining momentum in the face of leadership change. If the economy weren’t enough bad news, Arizona reeled after the White House took Gov. Janet Napolitano and the two education committee chairs left office. Enter an inertia buster, Darcy Renfro, who used her strong policy reputation in Arizona and legal skills to lift up the Board of Regents’ leadership while energizing a new crop of leaders. Arizona’s ambitious agenda promises a new funding model and an array of innovative ways to get Arizonans bachelor’s degrees at much lower costs.
2. Asking states the critical questions so new policies engage institutions. Maryland and Wisconsin are states where policy solutions start with institutions. Greg Nichols, a former state higher education exec, encouraged Maryland’s review of 40,000 student transcripts to understand at which colleges and in which courses productivity was most affected. Now, the community and independent colleges will join with the University System of Maryland to redesign the top 24 introductory courses and turn these courses into money-saving, student-excelling models for the entire state.
In Wisconsin, Rob Muller encouraged the institutions to identify the state policies that stand in the way of their efforts to promote swifter student progress toward a degree.
Advisers Nate Johnson, Jeff Stanley and Amy Sebring have campus level and state government experience that helped their state teams in Tennessee, Ohio and Texas, respectively, grapple with how to design and use powerful new funding incentives for course and degree completion. All three states are now poised to be national models for how campuses and legislators learn and work together to align spending with completion goals.
3. Pushing states to take the hard steps now, when resources are down, versus waiting for a sunnier day. Like most states, budget straits left Montana and Indiana struggling to maintain the most basic services. Inertia busters Judy Heiman and Jeff Stanley saw opportunity in this crisis.
Judy’s experience in the governor’s office and legislature in states on both coasts and Jeff’s career on Indiana’s campuses and state higher education commission afforded them a unique perspective to affirm the importance of a potentially unpopular change.
Both states used funds from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to make higher education more cost-effective now. For example, Montana halted all new construction and used federal stimulus dollars to develop a university portal and online infrastructure that will serve far more students with high-quality courses that are available more hours and in more places. Indiana used stimulus funds to expand its share of total state funding dedicated to completion incentives.
The contribution of the inertia busters and seed grants are small in proportion to that of elected leaders who deserve the ultimate credit for the work to date. Governors and state legislators will continue to take the heat and muster the courage to change deeply embedded policy and practice.
But the “inertia buster” difference maker is so important that we are commending this role to others looking to promote state policy change.
Kristin D. Conklin and Suzanne Walsh
Suzanne Walsh is a senior program director at Lumina Foundation for Education where she leads the foundation’s productivity work. Kristin Conklin, a founding partner of HCM Strategists and principal lead for Lumina's state productivity grants, has spent 15 years working on college readiness and success with state and federal policy makers.
Recent headlines have been full of disappointment for Americans, particularly regarding institutions that affect their daily lives. First it was the banks who argued that they were “too big to fail” in asking for a federal bailout and then proceeded to award obscene bonuses to their executives. Then it was the automakers, who made a mockery of the maxim “what’s good for General Motors is good for the country” when CEOs of the “big three” took corporate jets to Washington to plead for their own rescue package.
Now, it seems, higher education is joining the list. As colleges and universities hike tuition and cap enrollments while pleading for billions of federal dollars, we have new evidence that public disappointment and disillusionment with higher education are building rapidly. Through new opinion research conducted by our organization, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and Public Agenda, the American public is sending messages that colleges and universities and state and federal policymakers cannot afford to ignore. These messages include:
Alma mater has become Higher Ed, Inc. While most academics bristle at the admonition for higher education to run more like a business, that is exactly what’s happening in the public’s view, and they’re not sure they like it. We were surprised enough when more than half of Americans voiced the belief three years ago that colleges and universities are more interested in their bottom lines than in providing a good education for students. We have been even more surprised -- and dismayed -- to see that figure jump almost 10 percentage points in just three years.
Let’s be clear. The public is not saying that they do not want higher education institutions to focus on efficiency and effectiveness. In fact, they believe colleges and universities could educate more students with the resources they have. When they see tuition rates outpacing the average family’s paycheck even in times of economic distress, or read stories about excessive compensation of college presidents or about universities bailing out athletic programs while furloughing faculty, it isn’t hard to see how people might be just a bit skeptical about higher education’s priorities.
We can walk and chew gum when it comes to balancing access, quality and cost. In some of our earlier research, we uncovered a pervasive belief among college presidents that cost, access, and quality are locked in a zero-sum game, one that we dubbed “the iron triangle.” Expanding access means either increasing costs or sacrificing quality, containing costs requires limited access or skimping on quality, and so on. As in previous recessions, we are seeing this belief in action in the states, as some of our largest public college and university systems are freezing or rolling back enrollment and/or hiking tuition in the name of preserving quality.
The problem is that a growing majority of Americans just don’t buy that line of argument. More than half of those surveyed agree with the statements that colleges could spend less and still provide a quality education and that colleges could serve more students without hiking prices or damaging quality. These numbers have held steady over the past three years, which is not surprising, given that most people are experiencing significant changes in the workplace due to the recession, international competition, and technological change. They have not seen evidence of parallel innovations in higher education, and they’re wondering why.
We can’t live without higher education, but can we live with it? Simply put, people are feeling trapped. The “squeeze play” -- the combination of beliefs that higher education is essential but that many qualified students are being shut out -- continues and the majority agreeing with both of these statements has reached record highs. This trend is likely to continue as the economy continues to punish the undereducated most severely, and the fiscal slump prompts more tuition hikes and enrollment caps in the face of severe national economic distress. As the squeeze on students and families intensifies and confidence in the altruistic mission of colleges erodes, higher education’s position in the competition for public resources when the economy recovers may be seriously undermined.
So what does this mean?
For colleges and universities and their advocates in Washington, the message being sent by the public is clear. Spending time and money explaining why higher education is essential to the nation’s future is not the answer. Our data show very plainly that the American people get it when it comes to the need for higher education. But those same data also depict a public that is quickly becoming increasingly skeptical of the leadership and management of colleges and universities.
Rather than acknowledging the public’s concerns, some higher education lobbyists and advocates instead criticize the public as uninformed. While the average American may not understand the details of the higher education enterprise, the point is that the American people are anxious, frustrated, and not convinced that colleges and universities are being managed in ways that are consistent with their values. A PR campaign will not fix that. In this case, actions truly will speak louder than words.
For policy makers at the state and federal levels, these numbers represent a signal that voters are increasingly interested in what they are doing and will do to keep higher education affordable and accessible. The answers will not be easy in this campaign season, with the federal stimulus tapering off and many states facing severe budget shortfalls.
The inconvenient but unavoidable truth is that the time has come to talk about real changes in how higher education is funded and delivered.
America, once the world’s most educated nation, is fast losing ground. Although we are still second in overall education levels, we are much weaker -- 11th -- in the proportion of younger people with a college degree. In a world where knowledge increasingly drives economic competitiveness, this is a very serious problem. The issue is more than abstract economics, it’s also a moral concern: Since 1970, the benefits of higher education have been very unequally apportioned, with the top income quartile profiting hugely and the bottom hardly moving at all (despite starting from a very low level).
America’s education problem has been apparent for 30 years or so, and there have been a lot of suggestions for making us competitive again. Ideas on the K-12 side include: better trained and motivated teachers, more and better early childhood programs, better prepared school leaders, improved curriculums, higher standards, financial incentives, better data systems, and more rigorous and frequent assessments. On the higher education side, proposals include: motivating professors and administrators with formulas that reward success rather than enrollment, more use of technology, more data, improved administration, and (at least for general education) more testing. And, of course, better funding is relentlessly advocated for the entire educational spectrum.
All of these approaches have at least some potential to foster improvement. Some have already demonstrated benefits while some are being seriously oversold (more on that in a separate essay).
My fundamental belief, though, is that even if one takes a very optimistic view of the achievable potential of each of these strategies and adds them together, the net result will be significant but insufficient improvement to allow us to catch up in educational levels. If our scope of action is limited to the ideas advanced so far, we will actually continue to fall behind.
What makes it so difficult for us to catch up in education? Our lack of a pervasive education culture.
A large part of American society understands and appreciates the importance of education. But a large part doesn’t really see the value proposition. I can illustrate this lack of a pervasive education culture with personal experience. I taught undergraduates for 17 years at Ohio State, mostly at the introductory level. The university at the time was open admissions. My practice was to interview students individually at the beginning of each quarter, using 15-20 minutes to learn about their preparation; my goal was to gauge their experience with essay examinations and, if they had little or none, to help them prepare. But I also inquired about their interests.
One question I always asked was, “Why are you at the university?” The most frequent answer was, “Because my parents wanted me to go,” followed closely by statements like, “Because my girlfriend is here.” Most of these unmotivated students were first generation, although I recall that similar expressions of indifference came from a significant percentage of those with parents who had gone to college. Over all, at best a very small proportion of the young people I talked to in my various roles at the university were convinced from their own beliefs that graduation was really important. My experiment would yield different results today at Ohio State, which has become selective, but I believe you would find the same pervasively weak indicators of motivation at most public access universities.
You might think that young people are typically uncertain about goals and that these examples aren’t shocking. But if that’s what you think you are almost certainly an American. If we consider the nations that rank ahead of the U.S. in science and math test scores and in graduation rates -- e.g., Korea, Japan, Norway, Finland -- you’ll find very different attitudes about graduation in both young and old. I’ve lived and worked abroad, and I’m confident that, if you went into a classroom equivalent to our sixth grade in any of these countries and asked the students if they thought a higher education credential was essential to economic success, you would get a consistent "yes" answer of around 100 percent. By contrast, the percent answering "yes" in American schools would vary considerably, with many ranging much lower that our Asian and European competitors.
An alert reader will note that so far I’ve cited only anecdotal information laced with speculation, and point out that in the U.S. today the percentages even of low-SES and historically disadvantaged minority Americans telling pollsters that college is important are quite high and rising. They are right; students (and parents) do reply positively when asked about college. But do they believe it? Agreeing that you want to go to college or want your child to attend has become the socially correct answer (a good thing, of course).
But there are many reasons to suspect that the percentages are artificially high. First, there are the hard numbers, especially the poor rates of high school completion and the low proportion of those going on to college. Nationally, only about 42 percent of 9th graders enter college by age 19. Although the stated goals are slightly different, this is a significant mismatch with the 91 percent saying they expect to get some post-high school credential. Second, a single question on a topic such as this isn’t likely statistically valid, a point reinforced by a study that showed the percentage of African-Americans who thought people needed to go to college to prosper in the workforce was the same as whites, but in a follow-up question the proportion that thought it actually feasible was dramatically lower, with only 16 percent of black parents saying the opportunity was there vs. 43 percent of white parents.
I’ve not been able to find good comparative data on the U.S. vs. other nations on attitudes toward the value of education. But what I’ve been able to find for the U.S. reinforces the point made by the study just cited: when asked if higher education is important, the answers are very positive. But follow-up questions reveal significant worries (or lack of conviction).
American Perceptions of Educated People
To better understand America’s lack of a pervasive education culture, consider the fact that as a nation we generally don’t greatly value educated people and don’t seem to believe that being educated contributes to quality of life beyond that offered by greater economic success. If you asked the 6th grade students described above a second question, something like, “Do you think it’s important to be an educated person in order to have a satisfying life?” I think the "yes" answers in Europe and Asia would be very high, and in the U.S. very low.
Our view of education is different from most of the rest of the world and certainly from those nations that rank ahead of us in education levels. A Nobel laureate in science visiting a school in Korea or Japan would occasion a high level of genuine student excitement. But in the U.S., even at our better schools, you’d have to invite an athlete or entertainer to get the kids turned on.
There are many examples of Americans rating education poorly. One is certainly the low status of teachers here by contrast with the rest of the world. Another is popular culture.
By far the longest-running television show in America, “The Simpsons,” features a boy who is a dreadful student and hostile to education but highly popular with his classmates, together with a girl who is smart and interested in learning but very unpopular. A fascinating episode is one where the father, the doltish Homer, has an operation that makes him smart -- and the result is a disaster for the family and even the community. Yes, I know that the Simpsons is satire. But the fact is Americans are very comfortable with these stereotypes. And, if you look across the entertainment landscape, you’ll see smart, educated people consistently played as seriously flawed, while those with “emotional intelligence” are the heroes.
Why is America Different?
Why is America so different in attitudes toward education? It’s an issue that deserves more thorough research than I’ve been able to give it at this point, but my study of history suggests several reasons.
One issue is that America was a leader in making education free and widely available. The objective was to support our revolutionary experiment in democracy. The experiment was a success and the diffusion of education obviously had an important role. But, apart from the civic aspect, schooling appeared to many as sort of a frill, since there was a very small market for educated people in the first century and a half or so of U.S. history (an important exception is agriculture, where the role of higher education has transformed productivity).
Another difference between the U.S. and Europe (and I think also much of Asia) is that many countries in these regions conflated education and nationalism: Schooling meant learning the national language and literature, and being highly educated meant being a standard bearer for your people. The U.S. experience with nationalism has been very different from most other nations (too complicated to discuss here), with the result that we’ve not made the education/nationalism connection in the same way (the U.S. response to Sputnik would be an exception, though a short-lived one).
But the most important factor in my view is that, unlike Europe and Asia, much of the U.S. long had plenty of reasonably stable and well-paying jobs in industry (and before that in agriculture). With good jobs to be had for all (with the notable exception of slaves and many of their descendants), most Americans believed that the key to success in life was simply a willingness to work hard, and that’s what our culture valued. The American situation was in sharp contrast to that in most European and Asian countries. Compensation in those nations’ labor-intensive jobs was comparatively much lower, as was the status of these occupations. People in other parts of the world worked as hard as Americans, but their effort was at best sufficient to keep them out of poverty rather than move them into a new kind of middle class, as happened in the U.S.
American workers’ good fortune in securing a high standard of living -- especially evident in the manufacturing areas -- seems to have resulted in education having a very different role in our national culture. The advent of compulsory schooling around the world was closely associated with the effort to end child labor. In most of Europe and Asia the newly added years of school were principally devoted to vocational study; only a small minority of students moved through the highly competitive system that prepared them for the kind of jobs where high levels of knowledge and associated intellectual skills were needed.
In the U.S., by contrast, study in the additional years was usually “general” in the sense that the traditional subjects of mathematics, science, literature, composition, and history were required. This curriculum wasn’t intended to prepare students for factory or similar work (mostly because no preparation was needed). It could prepare young people for college, but in many areas that was the goal of only a handful of students -- a group small enough to be ignored and often derided. The result? In many communities school became primarily a social place, a holding tank for the years before work. Students went through the motions of education -- doing enough to get to the next grade -- but the expectations for real learning were minimal. In many parts of the U.S., we effectively separated the concepts of school and learning.
The U.S. approach in curriculum did have benefits in the sense that it allowed more students to move on to college. But we shouldn’t give ourselves too much credit for this. Our success in sending students to college appears to have been more of an unintended consequence than a deliberate objective. For example, consider the surging college participation rates of the baby boom generation: As the children of factory workers started to join others in going to college, the U.S. was entering a period of sustained surplus of unskilled labor. Many of the young people I talked to at Ohio State in the 1970s were there not because they thought education was important but because neither they nor their parents could think of anything else for them to do (Vietnam was a factor also). Equally damning, one of our greatest achievements, the G.I. Bill, had as a clearly stated purpose keeping returning veterans out of the work force, while improving education levels was secondary.
Manufacturing and the Two Cultures Problem
The United States doesn’t have social classes in the same way as many other nations, but we are of two cultures when it comes to education. Our first culture, smaller but growing swiftly since the end of World War II, understands the importance of education and imparts at least some level of learning-related values to its young. The second culture, shrinking but still very large, has begun to hear the message of education but is slow to assimilate it, not surprising because economic change has occurred in fits and starts. There was no single, unambiguous day in history when everyone should have realized that good-paying jobs at mills and factories for unskilled labor weren’t coming back. Here and there, a few good jobs did resurface, so it’s hardly surprising that many communities are still waiting for some company, nowadays probably foreign, to take over one of their excellent vacant sites and flood the region with jobs.
The problem for the second culture is greater because it requires two new ways of thinking. The first is understanding the economy’s shift to knowledge. The second, viewing school in a new way, is perhaps a more difficult change. It is extremely hard for parents who thought of high school in social terms to act on a radically different set of expectations for their children. Unfortunately, Americans’ high level of mobility has exacerbated the cultural schism because parents who recognize the value of education can physically move and put their children in different schools; those who remain are in an homogenous culture, never to hear the leavers’ voices pushing for change.
As it became important to have a more educated workforce, other countries gradually opened the control gates and allowed more students to move forward in higher education. Since school had always had a purpose in these countries, and since educational success had always held high cultural value, the speedup has been faster than in the U.S. This, I believe, is why others are catching up and even moving ahead in overall education levels, not to mention in mathematics and science learning.
Recent studies have pointed out a growing spread in salary among those in the U.S. with college degrees. It shouldn’t be surprising, though, that some college graduates are earning a lot more than others: it’s a consequence of our separation of school and learning. Once, you came in with a business degree and the company re-educated you. Now, they expect you to be an effective analyst and critical thinker from day one. The folks who sleepwalked through college in the same way they did high school are suddenly experiencing turbulence; the fact is, the value of a simple credential is slipping in comparison to the actual knowledge it is supposed to represent.
Are There Solutions to the Education Culture Problem?
The answer in my view is an unqualified “yes.” We know that culture can change because we’ve seen it happen in perceptions of education for a large part of our society; there’s no basis for saying progress is impossible and walking away from the problem. Certainly, though, making this change pervasive is a difficult task and won’t be accomplished quickly (which is perhaps why so many prefer to focus on things like formulas, longitudinal tracking systems, and attacking college and university management). That’s the bad news.
The good news is that much significant change can be accomplished with modest increases in funding. I’m a strenuous advocate of stronger support for both K-12 and higher education, but I don’t think money alone will get us where we need to be.
Here are seven ideas for changing culture.
First, we need to improve the aspirational focus of our schools. One good way to do this is to help students understand that education really matters, that it’s needed for jobs that are there and that they will want to have. South Carolina’s Personal Pathways to Success is an excellent new effort in this area. Beginning in the eighth grade, students create Individual Graduation Plans that focus on their chosen career cluster (for example, “Information Technology”). Some of their curriculum is then geared toward the cluster area and they have the opportunity of work experiences and the like.
Second, we must modify the biggest barrier to student success in K-12: mathematics. We teach math as an abstract exercise that excites only a few, and, especially in schools lacking an education culture, math forces a disastrously large proportion to drop out or fall behind. Pairing math with science, or better yet replacing it as a separate subject with computational science, could change kids’ perception of its value and make them far more interested in learning. Widespread anguish over mathematics is a major problem in building a positive education culture.
Third, we should support locally-led college access programs that emphasize total community educational change -- not just implementing a few programs or raising spending -- creating total community educational change. The reality is that, even if an economically disadvantaged community were to have well-prepared teachers, perfect curriculums, and state-of-the-art facilities, it wouldn’t get much return on investment if the kids went home to an environment of parents and other adults who believed that education doesn’t really matter.
The best example of community change I’ve seen is Kingsport, Tennessee. In 2001 leaders there created “Educate and Grow,” which offered financial assistance to help ensure that all students in local schools could complete at least two years of college. The public investment was modest but the impact was profound. I’m most struck by the 23% increase in high school graduation rates -- something that was accomplished with no new funding. What mattered, from my understanding of the process, was that business leaders got involved, persistently going into the schools and other locales to tell students, parents, and others that education was really important and that it couldn’t end with high school. As a result, in homes throughout the community, conversations about the future began to have a different goal, one that had an immediate effect on the schools. To follow an earlier analogy, changing culture is like decreasing a vehicle’s weight; it makes the existing engine more powerful.
A key point about community change is that it can’t be imposed. Outsiders can help with advice and some funding, but local people have to be convinced and then take the initiative on their own if real progress is to be made -- it’s the difference between what you believe and what someone else tells you to believe. The good news here is that, as more communities embrace education and demonstrate success, others will perceive the competitive disadvantage and have even greater incentive to undertake their own structural improvement as well.
Fourth, higher education should shift its approach in some areas of instruction -- particularly developmental education -- away from competing against time and toward academic assistance. Instead of a high-stakes (to these students) “pass in a given amount of time or be labeled a failure” approach to developmental math and English, we should offer self-paced, competency-based, and (at least at the module level) no-fail options. Especially for returning adults, a more positive strategy can offset a pervasive lack of confidence in their ability to learn and thereby make them more optimistic about the value of education in their lives.
Fifth, consistent with the principles noted above with respect to developmental education, we need to design a “New Front Door” for adults to enter higher education. If we want them to have an opportunity to change their lives, higher education will have to change how it operates. Because so many of these adults are also parents, bringing them back into the educational stream with positive experiences will encourage them to set better goals for their children. This process of creating a “New Front Door” is well underway in South Carolina.
Sixth, and surprisingly, we can help create an education culture by improving general education. The goals of general education are superb, but the way we teach now doesn’t get us there. Serious change is needed. One idea is to use technology to thread instruction throughout all four years, allowing for a reinforcement of skills and abilities not possible now. For example, business majors would complete second, third, and fourth year online modules on environmental issues that draw on and reinforce knowledge and skills gained from their first year biology course.
Challenging faculty -- instead of threatening them with budget penalties -- is the only way to make such a major revision happen. And how does improved general education foster an education culture? Simple. Students who have a better experience outside their major will have a stronger appreciation of education’s ability to expand the mind, something that should pay dividends in many ways and at many levels. Making general education more positive will also be of enormous value with opinion leaders -- after more than thirty years of talking with business and political leaders on a regular basis, I can tell you that a distressingly high proportion has a negative view of general education.
Seventh, and finally, we should build a serious R&D effort on education culture. One idea is to create carefully structured community-based pilots to find out what works best in changing attitudes about the value of being highly educated -- effectively R&D on the total community change idea described above. We’re implementing pilots of this kind in South Carolina and will very much welcome partners. We also hope to look hard at success: some students excel even in the worst schools in the most disadvantaged communities. Why? Anecdotal evidence suggests that the motivators are parents or relatives. But this begs the question of why and how those people are different. Through careful study, we hope to learn how to replicate their supportive and motivating behaviors. There are many other possible research topics of this kind that would be a great project for teams of educators and social scientists. And it needn’t be hugely expensive. We could ask that existing publicly-funded time (“departmental research”) as well as the topics of doctoral dissertations be directed to this task. Grant monies could then be used for coordination and summary analysis.
As we pursue the kinds of specific actions described above, I believe Americans need to remember three things.
First, we should avoid complacency about the competitiveness of our entire educational structure. Tom Friedman’s The World is Flat gave us a much-needed slap in the face for our overall educational competitiveness, and there’s been a great deal of angst about K-12 for some time now. But few among our political leaders appear to be thinking about education as a K to graduate system, and far too few appreciate the changing levels of knowledge needed to function effectively in today’s society. Once, Americans thought everyone should have around a fourth grade education, then the line gradually moved up to the eighth grade and finally to the end of high school. But the line of minimum necessity has long since crossed into higher education; now, if all you have is a high school diploma, you’re a knowledge economy dropout.
Second, if we want to think of our problems in management terms -- a very American thing to do -- we have to dispense with our enthusiasm for the hard, mechanical side of the concept and engage in the soft side. The U.S. automobile industry provides an excellent example of failure and success in the two dimensions of management.
Confronted by popular, higher quality vehicles from Japan, the Big Three responded with workforce quality campaigns that mixed threats and exhortation, then followed with a massive investment in technology (mainly robotics), all the while mixing in the inevitable reorganizations and incentives to executives. When all these failed to make a sufficient difference, the companies finally gave up and resorted to the complicated, messy, and slow business of creating positive relationships with their workers. After about thirty years, J.D. Power reports that Ford is on a par with its Japanese competitors and G.M. is closing in as well. That’s encouraging, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the gap could have been closed much faster if Detroit’s titans had been willing at the outset to think more holistically about the management challenge they faced.
In a recent essay on the origins of the Great Recession, the columnist David Brooks observes that economists’ practice has been to create elaborate mathematical models that make simple-minded assumptions about the manner in which people function in a complex economy. The utter failure of these formulas, he observes, is that they are “based on a stick figure view of humanity.” The lesson here is simple: the technical side of management is seductive (and has a role) but data and formula-focused approaches are at the periphery of the problem.
Finally, we -- especially those of us with a more positive view of higher education’s current effectiveness -- should be aware that significant additional investment in our public systems is unlikely. That isn’t to say that we should stop calling for appropriate funding levels -- as the economist Paul Romer points out, “Support for higher education is the lever by which the government can move the entire economy.” Rather it means we should acknowledge and accept the simple fact that there will never be sufficient resources to allow schools, colleges, and universities to take a great leap in effectiveness on their own. Instead, we’ll have to change the way an important proportion of our citizens think about the value of education. Having a much higher share of students fully understand and appreciate the importance of education will greatly enhance the productivity of our existing K-12 and higher education investment and help offset the size of future funding increases.
Culture change is the only real path to competitiveness for our nation, and time is short. I have some ideas; others will have better ones. Let’s get moving.
Garrison Walters is executive director of the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education.