The world still comes to the United States for higher education. Our elite institutions are the best in the world. Historically, we have done a better job of providing quality education to tens of millions of people than almost any other country on earth.
Yet we’re slipping. Simply put, our graduation rates are too low, our costs are too high, and too many students are slipping through the cracks. Reformers -- and universities themselves -- grasp these realities and want wholesale changes that will fundamentally alter how we think about higher education.
Those long-term battles are important, even necessary. New innovations in distance learning and nontraditional degrees may provide new pathways for students. But such changes may take decades. In the meantime, we have millions of college students taking on ever-higher debt loads for a long, winding road to a degree. We need to make immediate changes to affirmatively lower costs – not just “increase affordability” – while we raise graduation rates. We need to work within the existing framework to do what we’re already doing, but do it better and cheaper.
The good news is we have proven methods to improve our efficiency and outcomes at our postsecondary institutions.
Take student costs. Conventional wisdom focuses on high tuition costs, but there’s a related problem that’s often overlooked. Graduating from college takes most students five or even six years, while they are planning for four. That ends up an extra 25 to 50 percent in tuition costs alone, not to mention college-related fees and the opportunity cost of not working.
Institutions can directly reduce time to degree. Recent data show that “bottleneck courses,” i.e., courses where student demand outstrips available seats, play a big role in delaying degree completion.
To put it in human terms, a student who needs Biology 201 to graduate – when a seat in Biology 201 isn’t available until next year – is wasting time and money. That dynamic is why “access to courses” consistently ranks as the biggest student complaint about higher education, according to the Noel-Levitz annual student satisfaction survey (subscription required).
The fix is relatively straightforward: offer those bottleneck courses more often. Just 5 to 10 percent of courses are responsible for the vast majority of bottlenecks, so colleges and universities can address the shortages quickly. For instance, they can ensure that their most valuable resources -- professors -- are teaching the right mix of courses to prevent bottlenecks, rather than spending limited resources on course offerings that are not needed (15-20 percent of a typical school’s schedule). Similarly, colleges can better align schedules so students don’t have to choose between two required courses, and can make sure room size is aligned to corresponding course demand.
“Quickly” is the key concept in this fix – we can save students hundreds of millions of dollars every year starting immediately. We don’t need to wait a decade, or even a year.
Addressing bottleneck courses is one of the clearest examples of changes we can make to address the problems in higher education immediately, but it is far from the only one. The two below, for instance, lead to real savings right away, but are easy to overlook:
Extensive data show that better allocation of academic space – i.e., which courses are scheduled in which classrooms at which times – is an overlooked yet vital cost issue. Better allocation of classroom resources – identifying and addressing primetime bottlenecks by focusing on room ownership, meeting pattern efficiency and last-minute cancellation, etc. – can postpone or even cancel entire expensive classroom construction projects. (Full disclosure: Ad Astra Information Systems, where Tom Shaver serves as CEO, are providing university leaders with data-based solutions that help them make these important resource allocation decisions.)
College bookstores can adopt software enabling students to take advantage of economies of scale and get their expensive textbooks for vastly reduced costs (One of us wrote an op-ed on this subject in The Hill).
There are, of course, hundreds of other solutions we can adopt right away. These solutions represent just a few ideas that directly address the nuts and bolts of providing courses to thousands of students on a single campus. These solutions aren’t glamorous. They’ll never make the front page of TheNew York Times or be the subject of a TED talk.
Yet they are key operational concerns that save real money. One large community college in the Northeast better aligned its faculty and classroom resources to offer more of the most oversubscribed courses, allowing it to enroll hundreds more students without committing new funding. All told, it improved its balance sheet by over $1.7 million in a single year. A community college system in the Midwest took a similar approach and has improved its fiscal outlook by almost $3 million in just three years. Multiply those figures by the approximately 3,000 institutions of higher education in this country, and you are looking at tremendous savings for students – and for institutions.
Will these changes singlehandedly fix the deep-seated and complicated fiscal issues afflicting our higher education system? Probably not. But can these solutions -- and others like them -- vastly improve the higher education experience for both students and institutions? There is no question they can.
In an era defined by a $16 trillion federal debt and states across the country struggling with multibillion-dollar shortfalls, we are going to see an unfortunate but inevitable reduction in government funding for higher education. Colleges are facing this reality today. They cannot afford to wait for next-generation solutions. They need this-generation solutions. Millions of students’ futures depend on it.
Gene Hickok is the former deputy U.S. secretary of education and a senior adviser at Whiteboard Advisors; Tom Shaver is CEO of Ad Astra Information Systems, a company using data mining technology to help colleges and universities improve student access and lower costs.
Higher education believes in sustainability to such extent that at Midwestern universities, like my own, we advocate for ingredients on food labels. The biggest issue in sustainability, however, is not a green environment as much as the greenbacks it takes to earn a college degree.
University presidents are trying with moderate success to lower burgeoning student debt, more than $29,000 on average per student at my institution with similar amounts at other public colleges and universities. The conventional wisdom is to raise more scholarships from alumni (many of whom are still paying off debt), raise legislative awareness about the importance of higher education (been there, done that) and, more recently, raise students’ financial acumen about the cost of a degree. (Some 13 percent of Iowa State University students with loans didn’t realize they had debt).
Of all consumer economic sectors, higher education can do a better job in providing information about what tuition dollars buy. To mitigate that effect, the Iowa State Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, which I direct, has assembled a fact sheet for current and prospective students, informing them how long it takes to earn a journalism or advertising degree, the availability of scholarships and financial aid, current enrollment figures, recruitment and retention rates, placement data within six months of graduation (in Iowa, U.S. and abroad), and average starting salaries in advertising, journalism and public relations.
Average student debt remains a problem at Iowa State. Because administration here has focused on lowering debt, it is slowly decreasing from a high of $30,619 for bachelor's graduates in 2005-06 to $29,324 in in 2010-11. We all know that is not good enough at a land-grant institution where a college education should be most affordable.
Average debt for Iowa State advertising and journalism majors from 2005-11 essentially mirrored that of the university, with advertising hovering at $29,000 over the past eight years and journalism at about $27,000. We have been addressing debt in orientation classes by requiring students to file four-year undergraduate plans of study, to discourage people from taking more than four years (and thereby adding to their debt). We have streamlined curriculums to accelerate graduation. We also have raised millions in support from our donors.
Starting salaries in a desired field should at least equal average student debt so that graduates pay off loans in about 10 years while working in their chosen professions.
In our disciplines jobs are readily available with sufficient entry-level salaries to offset debt. But that assumes we can graduate students within 4-5 years (about 60 percent at Greenlee do) and place them in industry, graduate school or military (we place 97 percent within six months of commencement). More than half of our most recent graduates have found employment in Iowa, a fact about which we are proud, as a land-grant institution serves the state as well as the nation and world.
This is why transparency is vital if we ever hope to enlist faculty and administration (with oversight by legislatures and regents) in the collective effort to reduce tuition. I have written about that previously in Inside Higher Ed, focusing on curricular expansion and student debt.
In October 2012 we began providing transparent data on our school website that goes beyond that recommended in the College Scorecard, announced in President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address. Each institution’s "scorecard" is supposed to provide information about default and graduation rates, average debt, cost of tuition, and job prospects after graduation.
The scorecard has been criticized on a number of fronts. There is concern that students at prestigious colleges, such as the Ivy League, for example, may not need to borrow as much as counterparts at less wealthy public institutions. Prospective students viewing average loan debt might be misled by such a statistic. The liberal arts also might come off poorly because technical and professional degree-holders earn more in entry-level positions.
Those are persuasive arguments that have little to do with transparency, which has three rules:
Transparency requires data. No data, no transparency.
Transparency requires sunshine. No sunshine, no transparency.
Transparency requires assessment. No assessment, no solution.
In other words, you not only must gather facts; you need to display those facts for all to see and then assess how to address problem areas. The real challenge is collecting data down to the degree level (rather than at the institutional level) and then showcasing that information on each department’s website.
Your institution, college, school or department may balk at sharing data as we are doing at the Greenlee School. There is a reluctance to acknowledge potentially embarrassing information as there was in the 1990s about publicizing crime statistics on campuses. Just as those days ended by regulation, law and decree, the current status quo of documenting vital statistics in hard-to-access fact books also soon will end.
In September, we received a letter from the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, informing us that no later than next fall accredited colleges like ours must post graduation and retention statistics clearly on our websites, with data updated annually.
Upon further investigation, we found that the new requirement was inspired by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which advocates self-regulation of academic quality through accreditation. (CHEA recognizes ACEJMC.) "CHEA has been encouraging colleges, universities and accrediting organizations to provide additional information to the public about performance and what counts as academic effectiveness for some time," Judith Eaton, CHEA president, told me. Eaton added that the decision on what data to share with constituents is left up to individual institutions and academic units, but particularly welcomes "evidence of student achievement, what students learn and can do."
We have an obligation to share that information with the public. Data on student debt per academic discipline is an essential criterion of this effort. When coupled with placement, retention and graduation rates, along with job opportunities, that information can help prospective students and their parents make smart consumer choices.
However, typical institutions collect debt data only at the college and university levels. Thus, generating statistics for each academic unit can overload financial aid offices, which already have significant reporting obligations to document how federal and state aid was distributed and to make a case for more in the future. If any office needs expanding to help offset student debt, financial aid should be a top priority.
Imagine, though, the benefit of supporting that office and the utility of the data that it can generate, particularly if the information is posted on websites. What would be the effect in the public, legislative and regents’ arenas if every academic unit was obligated to do this for institutional reaccreditation?
Taxpayers would know which department requires 6.5 years on average to graduate students with a bachelor’s degree, which department’s average student debt exceeds the institutional norm, and which department’s graduates are apt to find jobs in their majors or assistantships in graduate school. These data then can become part of a unit’s assessment plan, with the emphasis on continuous improvement. Faculty can streamline curriculums with a focus on rigor rather than pedagogical expansion. Chairs can put more emphasis on recruitment and retention. Directors and deans can emphasize fund-raising. Provosts can revise budget models to reward units that recruit, retain and graduate students in a timely manner. Presidents can tout access to education to regain the public’s trust, which just may be the key to higher levels of fund-raising and legislative support.
Internally, we would also have additional criteria to evaluate the performance of chairs, deans, provosts and presidents and to focus the faculty on areas of public service and access to education.
Michael Bugeja chairs the Contemporary Leadership Committee of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication.
I commend the 5,000 higher education workers of the Massachusetts Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 615. These men and women, led by Massachusetts SEIU Higher Education Director Wayne Langley, commissioned four of the most trenchant, clear reports on the foibles of higher education finance since The Jungle muckracker Upton Sinclair self-published The Goose-Step: A Study of American Higher Education in 1922.
These articulate, footnote-laden documents investigate questions that must, but may never, top the public agenda of any discussions of college access for years to come.
While the reports ask familiar questions, my thrill is that these powerful questions come from a new voice, an influential union, outside the higher education policy circles -– the 2.1 million voter, I mean, member, SEIU. The former SEIU president Andy Stern sat beside the Obamas for the 2009 inauguration parade. If current SEIU president Mary Kay Henry would take a call from one of the nation’s leading obscure columnists, once this column runs, I’ll buy lunch for her and Langley at Kramerbooks, just a couple of blocks from SEIU’s Massachusetts Avenue headquarters.
The new Dan Brown novel? Skip it. This winter, I pulled up in front of a roaring fire with "Errors of Omission – Transparency and Conflicts of Interest at Leading Private Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts." (To download this and the other SEIU studies, see box at right.)
In this 2012 report, Boston College and Williams led the way with five or more trustees reported as “working with firms providing investment services to the college.” As the report notes, this is legal. As the report wonders, whose best interests do trustees in such a position represent? (See The Goose Step, Chapter V, “Interlocking Directorates” and Chapter XLVII, “Introducing a Board of Regents.”) All this made me miss my friend, the late John Strassburger, president of Ursinus College, who often wondered how so many colleges had become investment-management companies with a few classrooms attached.
Next, I devoured "Public Investment in Private Higher Education: Estimating the Value of Nonprofit College and University Tax Exemptions." This estimated the value of federal, state, and city tax exemptions to Northeastern University at $94.4 million. The report notes “the lack of transparency in existing, publicly available data sources about numerous issues related to specific areas of exemption.”
The SEIU report asks only for an open, public debate on the public good deriving from such tax exemptions, because “without a clear sense of the scale of public taxpayer support that colleges receive, it remains difficult to have a well informed debate about our policy priorities.”
On to the conclusion of "Academic Excess – Executive Compensation at Leading Private Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts." I’ll get a copy to U.S. Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), one of the few on Capitol Hill willing to ask in public why nonprofit colleges and universities use their tax-exempt status to pay high salaries.
“There always seems to be more money for the executive suite even as colleges raise tuition year after year,” Grassley lamented this winter. The SEIU report, using 2009 data, covers 339 positions at 21 Massachusetts private colleges and universities. The high is $6.4 million for a Harvard Management Corp. staffer. Pity the chief of staff at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in the cellar at just $101,941. Recent news reports show that the situation is the same with more recent data.
“A more robust public debate about the costs and benefits of colleges’ nonprofit fiscal privileges, which subsidize the excessive pay schemes documented here, is badly needed…. We have highlighted the numerous ways in which schools continue to avoid providing a full public accounting of the compensation of their highest-paid employees, regardless of whether they are defined as ‘key employees’ or whether the source of their compensation comes from the school itself or outside corporate activities.”
Janitors? Why would a union of janitors speak out on higher education?
“During the endowment debacle, several of the schools either approached us for wage, hour or benefit concessions or instituted layoffs of our members,” Wayne Langley said the other day in Boston. “Essentially, schools were asking us to do things like waive a 4 percent contractual raise based solely on their word that times were tough.”
Meetings with the colleges to clarify that “times were tough” failed to answer the SEIU’s questions. “It was all very frustrating because it was impossible to determine the truth from the spin, making reasonable debate and discussion impossible and confrontation inevitable,” Langley said. “Our sponsored research is an attempt to find out what is really going on, so we could decide what positions both at the policy level and at the bargaining table.”
Finding credible help was the next hurdle. “It took me six months to find a researcher that had the professional chops to do this and who was not terrified of offending the school lobby and being blackballed,” Langley told me.
I’m late in my discovery of the four crisp studies Langley commissioned from the think tank The Tellus Institute, published in 2010, 2011 and two in 2012. With President Obama just unveiling an online tool to untangle the actual cost of college for students, these four reports affirm both the fog of higher education finances and the cost of that fog to the nation.
Why would the janitors ask these questions? Listen. Langley’s clear argument would earn an A in any most highly selective private college class I’ve attended: “We believe the current (higher education) leadership is pursuing a bad model that will decrease affordability for students and parents, eliminate good jobs, increase inequality and reintroduce a class-based system where the rich will receive a good, four-year liberal arts education, and everyone else will get trained for jobs that will last 10 years and then disappear.” Wouldn’t this be a fine question for, well, colleges and universities?
On to my favorite of the four, the first the SEIU sponsored in 2010 to search for the answer to a simple query: “If you want our members to take pay cuts due to the weak economy, would you please open your books and let’s see how much money you have?” This is "Educational Endowments and the Financial Crisis: Social Costs and Systemic Risks in the Shadow Banking System, a Study of Six New England Schools." (See The Goose Step, Chapter VI, “The University of the House of Morgan.”)
The SEIU study of endowments is the only report I’ve read evaluating whether 2008-9 multibillion-dollar college endowment losses followed unavoidable fate or reckless trustees taking excessive risks. The report, the executive summary states, “looks at what happens – and who suffers – when universities embrace high-risk investing.”
What happens? Janitors, not trustees or college presidents, lose jobs. And, oh, at my own Williams College, the trustees revoked the short-lived no-loans financial-aid policy. At last, thank you, janitors, someone else is wondering what gives the trustees to chase endowment returns three, four, five times higher (i.e., riskier) than the risk-free rate of U.S. Treasuries.
Our janitors asking such questions? Hopeless? I’ll take the long view, with Thomas Paine in the introduction to the third edition of Common Sense:
Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not YET sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favour; a long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.
“Until we organized janitors in commercial office buildings, many thought it could never be done,” Langley told me. “We are predisposed to issues that will benefit the general public as well as our members. That is what unions used to do when they fought for public education, the eight-hour day, child labor laws and the like.”
Examining and improving “issues that will benefit the general public”?
Thank you, janitors. Crazy me, I know. That’s what a college education is for, too.
Wick Sloane writes the Devil's Workshop column for Inside Higher Ed.
At 30 years old, I definitely consider myself part of the Facebook generation. Zuckerberg’s brainchild hit the ‘net when I was a senior in college, and by then I was already well acquainted with e-mail, chat rooms, text-messaging, and all the multifarious precursors to today’s social media. I text, I post, I chat, I even snapchat: in these respects, I’m an utterly unremarkable member of my society.
But I also happen to be a college professor and a molder of young minds. And, far from indulging the technology-driven spirit of the times, I make my students work as students have always worked. They read Seneca, Pascal, Tolstoy, and Schopenhauer. They are obliged to turn in papers by hand; they must come to office hours to speak with me about their grades; they are even, and this is most anachronistic of all, required to attend class. Physical presence is key to every aspect of their learning experience, be it my hovering, breathing presence in the classroom or the office, the cohort of 30 or so warm bodies that shows up for lecture twice a week, or the more abstract form of embodiment conveyed by the weight of a book.
To believe certain commentators, however, this embodied notion of learning is on its way out in American higher education. Writing for The American Interest’s January/February 2013 edition, the recent Yale graduate Nathan Harden offers the following ominous prognostications about the future of university instruction in our digital age:
In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.
On Harden’s account, one of the principal reasons for this portended transformation, which is already being partially implemented by such institutions as Harvard and MIT, is that the cost of college is increasingly out of proportion with its perceived economic benefit. As the American job market has become more competitive, the cost of a degree has increased, and only the most naïve of students still believe that a college education is a universally redeemable ticket to middle-class prosperity. The weighing up of costs and benefits involved in earning a college degree will lead inevitably to a re-evaluation of the current higher education model. Luxury residence halls, face-to-face interaction between professors and students, ivied brick walls -- these will all be things of the past once the much-heralded education bubble finally bursts. What will replace them are massively populated, inexpensive online courses and lectures, prerecorded by the very best lecturers and administered by those hordes of professors and other academics not quite sexy or charismatic enough to warrant virtual celebrity.
To anyone who thinks Harden’s predictions are a little too ambitious (not to mention deeply disturbing, at least for college professors who don’t fancy the idea of working in a grading factory), don’t worry -- they most likely are. What Harden forgets -- and indeed, what just about everyone prophesying the eclipse of face-to-face interaction in a virtual world forgets -- is that human beings are, above all else, bodies, and that to lead full, happy, and meaningful lives, we need other bodies. Let’s consider the following examples of how technologies of virtualization have failed to triumph over our species’ thirst for physical presence.
1. The Giant Head. Some older readers may recall a famous article in Reader’s Digest from the late 1950s featuring an illustration of a massive human head connected to miniscule arms and legs. What was the thesis of that article? The tech junkies of the time believed that in the future technology would become so advanced that human beings would no longer need to use their bodies, leading to a swelling of the brain and a shriveling of our appendages. Many also foretold a time when food supplements would replace food. Wouldn’t it be great, they asked, if instead of spending hours preparing and eating meals, we could nourish ourselves in just a few seconds? No one at the time seemed to consider that human beings might not want to do any of this — that we might enjoy using our bodies, eating, and the like. In the half-century since these predictions were made, restaurants have proliferated, and heads haven’t grown one bit.
2. Live Theater. When I was a kid, there were hardly any live theaters in my hometown of Bakersfield, Calif. Now there are about ten. Many people used to believe that movies had sounded the death knell for live theater, but today the latter enjoys just as much, if not more, prestige than it did 100 years ago. I recently had the good fortune to see Kevin Spacey’s production of Richard III. I’ll remember his performance for the rest of my life — it had never occurred to me that acting could be so visceral, so violent, so physical. How many of us can say the same thing about movies? Again, those who foretold the demise of live theater never reckoned that people might just plain like seeing living bodies move around and speak on the stage, and that no amount of special effects could compensate for the lack of real flesh and blood.
3. The myth of social media. This myth holds that virtual, online or technologically mediated interactions are in the process of replacing face-to-face interactions. Most people never take the time to think about what the world would be like if this were really the case. I live in a small college town, and I can assure anyone interested in such things that student interactions on Friday and Saturday nights are plenty physical —sometimes I can hear them from across the lake! Social media does little more than provide a way of sharing information that enhances the intimacy of eventual physical contact. Anyone who doesn’t know this doesn’t understand the technology.
Of course, people like Harden will point to other sectors of the economy where technological innovation has erased thousands of jobs. People don’t need information from stockbrokers or travel agents to make decent decisions about travel or investment anymore, so why should a living, breathing professor be necessary to convey the sort of information one gets out of a college education? If that information can be distributed more cheaply thanks to virtualization, why should students be expected to bear the extra expense of classroom education?
The answer to this question is so elementary that the objection supporting it is almost hard to take seriously. The truth is that education is not simply the conveying of information. In fact, it is probably only marginally that. How many people remember most of what they learned in college? Only very few, I would guess. The benefit of a classroom education is that it keeps students under a certain amount of mental pressure, forces them to think on the spot, and obliges them to explain themselves to other people who are physically present. Information is afoot in these interactions, but so are wisdom, passion, empathy, and a whole host of other viscera that only an embodied teacher or student can properly convey.
How effective, for instance, do we imagine an online church experience would be compared to the real thing? Is it reasonable to think that a virtual tour of the cathedral at Chartres would be as spiritually moving as being there? We should also consider that many students might simply enjoy the physical classroom and their interaction with peers and professors -- or at least they might recognize that they learn better under these conditions. The costs of classroom education may be soaring out of proportion at present, but this is not a verdict on the education itself.
So let’s ask -- what developments are behind these grim augurs of the collapse of America’s higher education model? Some of it undoubtedly has to do with politics. Many commentators on the right (and perhaps Harden is one of them) would likely cheer the dismantlement of a system whose values are often perceived as far left of center. If taking education online can put “tenured radicals” out of work, then why not welcome it? At the same time, however, just as many moderate and left-leaning thinkers have joined the chorus of those predicting the failure of higher education (for instance, see Thomas Friedman’s recent writings in The New York Times), and it would be simplistic to chalk this latest round of doom-peddling up to politics.
The real culprit, I suggest, is what, for lack of a better term, we might call Appleism. Innocent in principle but nefarious in practice, the doctrine of Appleism holds that increases in technological capability are synonymous with increases in human happiness. Anything that can be put on a screen is better than what can be seen with the naked eye. The passage of electrons through a cathode tube is equivalent to passage from a lower to a higher state of being. Proponents of Appleism hold out technology as an intrinsic good; they are the sorts of folks who compulsively buy the latest Apple product, simply on principle.
We can point to fiscal insolvency all we want, but one has difficulty believing that Harden’s and others’ vision of a fully or almost-fully online education is not also the product of society’s limitless fascination with virtualization. Proponents of the current craze ought to think carefully about the human costs of technology before enthusiastically proclaiming the end of a system that could leave hundreds of thousands of people without work, students cheated out of a quality education, and that would further contribute to the creation of a world where virtualization is always and everywhere, without qualification or questioning, heralded as an unequivocal good.
Louis Betty is an assistant professor of French at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Because of increased competition for students, decreased household income and skepticism about value, a third of institutions predict tuition revenue won't keep pace with inflation, Moody's survey finds.