In the quest to measure university performance, both for valid or other reasons, we often latch on to statistics in ways that do more harm than good.
SAT scores, GPA's and graduation rates are all examples. Each of these data points provides some information about some characteristics of students and their universities, but none of them can serve as the ultimate test of institutional or individual worth. Universities and colleges are complicated places that serve widely varying individual students, each with a particular set of abilities, resources, preparation, background, attitudes, and goals. No single number captures this complexity, and when we extract simple numbers from this complicated mix and use them to compare colleges, we usually generate cynicism, misinformation, and, on occasion, misplaced remedies for inaccurately identified problems.
Let us take the graduation rate. What could be simpler or easier to understand? This rate measures the percentage of those students starting college in year one who graduate by the end of year four (or for some purposes year six). The four-year rate reflects the ideal model of the small liberal arts college where students attend full time for four years to complete a program that requires exactly eight semesters of academic work. Although we do not say so, we also have in the back of our minds that perhaps the very best college of all graduates 100 percent of its students within the four years. When a university graduates only 70 percent or 60 percent within the four-year period, we wonder why it fails to educate all of its students.
University people know better, but the answer, being complicated, fails the Lombardi 25 word test: "If you can't explain it in 25 words, most people won't listen."
Universities and colleges do want their students to graduate, and to do so having taken a rigorous course of study that challenges them. The institutions want to accept some students whose academic promise may exceed their academic preparation for college, and to accommodate students whose financial circumstances require them to work and attend part time. So, they try to explain graduation rates with a few more than 25 words.
Most colleges and universities institutions do not fit the full-time, small residential liberal arts college model. Some have programs like engineering that require five years of full time study, or pharmacy programs that also require more than the standard four years. Many institutions specialize in high-risk students, and by definition, many of these students will not succeed. Many students register for only 12 credits a semester because that is how the federal government defines full time for financial aid, yet to graduate in four years, students must take 15 credits. The graduation rate includes students who register for 12 credits, so by definition many students will fail to meet the four-year goal.
In large complex university systems, students frequently start at one campus, then transfer and finish at another. These students may transfer because they choose to pursue a program the first institution doesn't have, or because they couldn't gain admission to a highly selective major in their first institution, or found they preferred a larger or a smaller institution, or wanted to be closer to home, or had financial difficulties at the first campus. None of these reasons necessarily provides cause for alarm, but students leaving for these reasons will lower the graduation rate.
Even so, some reasons for low graduation rates do require attention. Sometimes students drop out because they cannot find seats in required classes or because they fail classes. Students can become isolated and discouraged and drop out; they can find themselves distracted by social and other non-academic activities and neglect their class work. Sometimes these failures reflect weaknesses in campus support services, and with careful attention to academic advising along with effective student support programs, campuses can reduce the dropout rate and improve the graduation rate.
When we use graduation rates to compare campuses and infer from these comparisons that one campus is doing a better job of educating students than another, we exceed the value of the data point. It may be that the campus with a high grad rate is simply giving away its degrees (after all, a diploma mill has a 100 percent graduation rate). It may be that the campus with a low rate is working with high risk students. Or, it may be that the high rate campus is doing a superb job of advising and the low rate campus is ignoring its students.
The grad rate doesn't tell which answer is right. The right answer requires a detailed analysis of what happened to the students who dropped out, and that takes more than one data point. If the campus improves its own graduation rate, that is probably a good thing, but comparisons of grad rates among campuses usually produce more distortion and misunderstanding than progress.
State colleges with lower tuition usually have lower graduation rates than private colleges with high costs because they accept a wider variety of often less affluent students. Private college parents, who pay a lot of money for their children's education, expect the college to find a way to graduate those students, and paying parents encourage their students to finish in the minimum four years. Sometimes this produces grade inflation as eager institutions seek to meet the expectations of paying parents.
As most university administrators know, graduation rates are very different for different subsets of students within the same campus. Some groups will graduate at rates approaching 100 percent, others at rates well below 40 percent. Both sets of students attend the same institution, have access to the same classes and faculty and advisers, and experience the same intellectual, cultural, and social environment. They have remarkably different graduation rates because they are remarkably different students.
Some of those who succeed easily are smart and academically well prepared, others who fail are also smart and academically well prepared but perhaps not yet ready to live away from home or experience a large university. Some of those who fail are poorly prepared and economically challenged, but others in similar circumstances meet the challenge and succeed. Improving graduation rates requires attention to the specific needs of significantly different groups of students.
If we overemphasize graduation rates, colleges may suffer the temptation to do whatever it takes to get the high percentages celebrated by rating agencies and trustees. One way to help improve the rate, after all, is to inflate grades so that all students are above average, and water down the curriculum so everyone can get a degree -- not outcomes of much interest to the policy makers, board members, or politicians who tout graduation rates as the touchstone of college performance.
John V. Lombardi
John V. Lombardi, author of the Reality Check column, is chancellor and a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
To: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings
Re: University Presidents Summit on International Education
A week or so ago, at the University Presidents Summit on International Education, you honored us with an event delivered with class and style uncommon in executive branch engagements with university presidents and chancellors. As I’m sure you noticed, we enjoyed the attention, respected the intent, and appreciated your personal and effective participation, as well as your mobilization of key actors including the President and First Lady. As we all returned to our campuses to reflect on the messages, themes, and programs discussed, and you return to the critical business of government, a reality check on our conversation seems in order.
International education in all its many forms has been a major agenda item in American higher education forever, and over the most recent 30 years or so, colleges and universities have conducted a constant conversation about internationalizing the curriculum and improving the campuses’ ability to bring the world home.
This agenda, which reappeared in many of the comments by the university and college presidents in attendance, is really not a federal obligation. The task of internationalizing or globalizing our campuses belongs to the institutions. If internationalizing is a major campus concern, like teaching chemistry, the campus will find a way to do it because it will be central to the campus’s academic and student programs. If a campus requires federal money to support a major change to its curriculum or to rethink its purposes, the campus is not likely to be effective anyway. I would recommend that you thank us for such insights, and return to the main purpose of the summit: language skills.
Success in this proposed joint venture requires that both the federal government and the universities speak clearly and precisely about what you want and what we can do.
We in the universities and colleges have much experience in taking tightly focused government programs and diffusing their intent to flow money into activities more central to our interests. If you fund language and area studies, we will leverage the language effort to get more resources for area studies, literature studies and culture studies. These are good things, but they do not address the national need you articulated at the summit, learning language.
Further, we in the colleges and universities are expert at avoiding effective performance measurement. If the nation needs college educated graduates functionally literate in a number of less commonly taught languages, the only way to get this result is to fund programs that will test the graduates. If you want us to graduate students with a command of spoken and written Arabic, Urdu or Mandarin, you need to fund a program that delivers money to institutions that demonstrate the functional literacy of its graduates in these languages through standardized tests. Otherwise, we will train people for you who can read some things in some languages, have traveled and lived in the countries where some of these languages are spoken, but who may or may not have functional usable literacy.
We are good at redefining objectives. If the federal government wants to help create college graduates who have high quality skills related to living and working within other languages, it must fund specific programs in specific countries focused on the acquisition of testable specific language skills. If we go to India, and live primarily with English speaking communities, we will return with cultural awareness and many good stories to tell about our experiences, but we will not have acquired functional competency in a foreign language or culture. You must be specific about what you want, specific about how you will know when you get it, and specific about the test you will apply to validate the learning accomplished. This is difficult in cultural studies, but it is not at all hard in language acquisition.
If we struggle with clarity and effectiveness in our international objectives and programs, our counterparts in the federal government -- especially the State Department, the Defense Department, and some of the intelligence agencies -- send conflicting messages about the importance of language and area studies expertise. While we hear that in-depth knowledge of countries and languages is essential to the defense and prosperity of the nation, we also know that the State Department and the Defense establishment tend to rotate their employees from place to place, country to country, language region to language region, devaluing in the process true expertise in either language or culture.
We also know that the career track to high level assignments in both State and Defense place a premium on generalist experience and knowledge and little emphasis on high levels of expertise in any particular language or culture. We are also unsure whether language competency is of any particular advantage for positions within the Department of Education.
You could do some things to improve the incentives for students to think of language related skills as major assets for careers in State, Education or Defense. For example, you might institute a language competency premium for mid to high level employees in the executive branch, a bonus addition to salary for those capable of maintaining a high level of language competency throughout their careers (tested on a periodic basis). You might consider longer term assignments overseas or in region specific offices or agencies as premium assignments with enhancements to salary or other benefits that would demonstrate that the enthusiasm for functional language skills is highly valued, much in the same way combat duty and other difficult assignments carry a premium.
These comments speak to the task of making the skills associated with uncommonly taught languages valued in the real world that our students watch with clear-eyed intensity. They know that in the great American Midwest, for example, the daily need to know someone else’s language is minimal. We can travel for days without needing to speak anything but English. We see corporations hire language experts and culture brokers from among the nationals of countries where they trade and work, not from among the language fluent American college graduates.
Students see that only a few individuals in high government positions speak another language fluently, and almost none speak uncommonly taught languages. They see no premium for acquiring and maintaining a competency in difficulty to learn languages, and so they leave the language skills to native speakers, language and literature experts, and some area studies specialists.
To achieve your goals, you will need to help us focus on testable language skills, incentives for careers that use functional language skills, and support for overseas experiences that produce high levels of language performance.
We had a wonderful time at your summit, and the two of you are to be congratulated for what you are doing to improve education in the K-12 arena, facilitate the visa process, and address the constant challenge of encouraging the exchange of scholars without compromising national security. We are grateful for the respect reflected in the quality of our treatment during the Summit, and we are all eager to work with you.
The heated rhetoric surrounding immigration reform legislation in Congress threatens to drown out an important, bipartisan effort to resolve a decades-old inconsistency in federal immigration law concerning postsecondary tuition costs for undocumented students who have graduated from high schools in the United States.
The “DREAM Act,” which was incorporated into the Senate Judiciary Committee’s immigration reform bill last week, would allow states to provide in-state tuition for postsecondary education to undocumented students who have attended (for at least three years) and graduated from high school in their states.
Federal immigration law now prohibits them from doing so, though that has not stopped several states, including “red” states like Utah, Kansas, and Texas, from adopting such legislation in recognition of the fact that there are more than 50,000 of these students each year that graduate from high school as -- in nearly every way -- children of the American dream.
Of the DREAM Act, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) stated, “I find it inconceivable that we would provide greater benefits to persons who are here illegally than to American citizens. It makes a mockery of the rule of law."
However, Congress must ensure the debate over the education of undocumented students is actually grounded in the law, rather than rhetoric. Federal law related to this issue was interpreted more than 20 years ago by the United States Supreme Court’s 1982 Plyler v. Doe decision.
Plyler v. Doe involved a Texas law that effectively banned undocumented minor children from participating in public elementary and secondary education. The Court heard arguments that sounded quite similar to those used to deny in-state college tuition for the same students: that providing K-12 education rewards illegal immigration, that we should not give public benefits to those in the country illegally. The significance of this case is not that it settled once and for all the ideological arguments surrounding immigration. Rather, the Court created protective legal precedent for minor undocumented students by carefully examining the intersection of immigration law, the distribution of public goods, and individual rights as protected by the Constitution of the United States.
The Supreme Court’s decision addressed the question: Did a child break the law because the parents brought the child into the country illegally as a minor? The Supreme Court said “no.”
The Court ruled that such children, in fact, were entitled to equal protection under the law, one of America’s most cherished legal principles. As cited in the Court’s opinion, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution provides that “[n]o State shall…deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
As a population within the state’s jurisdiction, undocumented students were, therefore, entitled to equal treatment under the law. In the opinion of the Court, Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr., wrote, “To permit a state … to identify subclasses of persons whom it would define as beyond its jurisdiction, thereby relieving itself of the obligation to assure that its laws are designed and applied equally to those persons, would undermine the principal purpose for which the Equal Protection Clause was incorporated in the Fourteenth Amendment.”
The Court further argued that federal immigration law, despite “sheer incapability or lax enforcement,” was not a justification for denying children equal protection and access to education.
In recognition of this principle, several state legislatures have passed laws to allow in-state postsecondary tuition for undocumented students who have attended public high schools in state for more than three years. They realize the legal “no-man’s land” these students occupy, and have sought to remedy it under the law.
The central relevance of the Supreme Court’s case to this debate over in-state tuition for undocumented students is that we cannot simply ignore what Justice Brennan called the “shadow population” of students who go about their daily lives and contribute to our society in the same way that we all strive to contribute. Moreover, we cannot deprive these students of the equal protection that our Constitution provides simply because they graduate from the high school setting where the Supreme Court has decided that it applies.
Though the issue is easy to weigh down with heated rhetoric, we hope that the law will, in fact, prevail, and that Congress will pass the DREAM Act. As Justice Brennan concluded, “[W]hatever savings might be achieved by denying these children an education, they are wholly insubstantial in light of the costs involved to these children, the State, and the Nation.”
In the wake of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the 2002 federal law aimed at reforming the governance of public companies, corporate trustees have been on the hot seat to ensure greater transparency and accountability. While Sarbanes-Oxley does not apply to nonprofits yet, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee has been hard at work analyzing whether nonprofits merit more scrutiny and similar rules. The recent string of events at American University -- involving a president who needed a strong board to protect him from himself – has, for better or for worse, drawn attention to the challenges of higher education trusteeship. And Congress’s continuing interest underscores the pressing need for college and university boards to get their house in order – before someone does it for them.
But the existing culture of university trusteeship is one that promotes the status quo and discourages active and informed trustees. By custom and practice, trustees are not trained or encouraged to ask questions and do their job responsibly. Based on more than a decade of service as an elected regent of the University of Nebraska, and my involvement with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and the Institute for Effective Governance, I have found a number of reasons this is the case, and identified some antidotes to these unhealthy practices.
For starters, when I was elected regent I was amazed at the number of parties, dinners and social functions that board members attend. The benefit of these events from the university administrator’s perspective is very clear: a trustee who becomes friends with administrators is going to be more likely to cheerlead than to challenge policies and practices. As I delved into my work with my fellow regents, I was amazed at how willing regents were to let administrators make all the decisions. I soon realized that the “social side” of trustee life was only part of the problem.
The University of Nebraska has very good, decent people in its administration and on its Board of Regents. Yet the standard practice of public university administration, like so many other parts of our system of government, promotes agency interests first, often with results that fail to enhance the public interest. For example, the board voted 6 to 2 to spend over $3 million to build a storage facility for seldom-used books. These are not rare books, but standard texts available in libraries across the country. Now they will be stored in better conditions than the books in the University’s regular collection.
The board approved $3 million for a “hydraulically banked indoor running track system” so that the University of Nebraska at Lincoln’s sports center could boast a state-of-the-art, world-class indoor track. This at a time when the university was increasing tuition and student fees and lobbying the legislature for more money claiming we do not have enough to pay faculty.
The list goes on. Trustees who realize that their responsibility is to make decisions that serve the public (not always the university) would never approve these proposals. But the prevailing culture on university boards is one of routinely succumbing to administration demands. A significant part of the reason boards behave this way is that most university administrators contract with the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities to train new board members. AGB training follows a single model, which emphasizes following the administrators’ lead and not “micromanaging” -- in other words, not asking tough questions.
But if our universities are to be well managed, we need trustees who promote responsible policies and serve in a responsible manner -- which means asking tough, challenging questions, advancing public understanding of the trade-offs and costs of public programs, promoting responsible behaviors and often voting No for programs that do not meet cost-benefit standards.
Having criticized my fellow board members for voting irresponsibly, let me offer a brief case study in which the University of Nebraska Board of Regents took a very courageous and responsible stand in the face of extreme pressures. In 2000, the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) came under attack for conducting fetal tissue research using tissue from aborted babies. UNMC is prohibited from performing abortions, but it accepted tissue donations from a doctor who had been awarded “honorary faculty” status.
UNMC had not been doing fetal tissue research in secret; faculty had published more than 50 papers based on the research. But UNMC did deliberately keep the source of the tissue quiet -- and this proved to be a big mistake. When the news media picked up the issue, it was described as “secret research using tissue from aborted babies.”
Nebraska pro-life groups condemned the research as immoral. Several vowed to defeat any regent running for re-election who supported this research. Political watchers predicted that the Board of Regents would quickly cave. The board thoroughly studied and debated the topic, and made the responsible decision. We weighed the overall public costs and benefits, thought through the moral questions, and, against significant threats and pressures, voted 12 to 0 to approve continuing fetal tissue research at UNMC. Recognizing the sensitivities of certain citizens on the issue, the board also directed the Medical Center to try to develop an alternative supply of tissue. UNMC did eventually develop some alternative sources for some of the cells needed, but to this day, it continues to use fetal tissue from abortions for some of the cell types since no other source can be found.
We need elected officials and university trustees who will make the tough and sometimes unpleasant decisions that result in responsible policy. Making tough calls, saying No, voting against programs that are recommended by administrators or government officials who are your personal friends, is very hard for an elected or appointed governing board member to do. But it is the responsible course. The public interest is clearly served by weighing all the costs and benefits to the public, debating alternatives openly and honestly, and then choosing the best option. The administration will be advocating what is best for the university from its perspective -- at a public university, it is the trustee’s job to champion the public’s perspective.
What are we to do to enhance the performance and responsible decision making by college and university governing boards in an environment that is dominated by administrators controlling the information and a board culture that promotes cheerleading rather than responsible governance? Here are 10 proposals:
1. Board members must subject major spending and policy decisions to cost/benefit analysis. It is a simple and extremely useful analysis because it forces trustees to consider disadvantages and trade-offs. While simple to do, the fact is, cost-benefit discussions are rare at governing board meetings. Unfortunately, since administrators have the resources to do analysis and do not like trustees to “micromanage,” the normal practice for board members is no cost/benefit analysis, listen and nod as administrators speak, vote yes, and let the full-time officials explain the policies and decisions.
2. The board secretary should be hired and rewarded by and responsible only to the board. If the board wants to have serious staff work done and someone who can collect information and be responsive to the board, a staff person responsible only to the board is best. Board employees who work for the administration will understandably end up being less than supportive if there is a request for information the administration doesn’t like, or a serious disagreement in policy. Beware: A request to hire a board secretary is often viewed (incorrectly) as an insult and great threat to the president, and most likely will be opposed.
3. Responsible trustees should insist on real committees and meaningful committee meetings, sessions that truly tackle issues. Administrators often favor minimal board meetings and a maximum of socializing. Similarly, administrators do not like the board breaking down into committees where they can do even more analysis and work. Trustees must take charge of their board, organize into committees to get into budget and policies in far more detail than is possible in the full board meetings, and limit the amount of time lost to unimportant university “show” presentations and social events.
4. Boards should insist on having major “strategic issue” discussions at each meeting. Another way to avoid the tendency to respond to administrator-set agendas and engage in end-of-the-process yes/no votes is to set aside a big block of time at each meeting to discuss key strategic issues in order to set policy to direct the university. Dedicating the bulk of a full board meeting to tuition policy, recruiting, and other major economic issues has been very effective at the University of Nebraska.
5. Board members should insist on the right to “have the floor” so that they can delve into issues and get all their follow-up questions addressed. The standard practice at board meetings is to have trustees wait in a queue to ask a question, with no opportunity for follow-up discussion and real debate. This needs to end.
6. To promote better accountability, trustees should insist on and help develop good “outcome measures” and “key performance indicators” for the university. It would be great for students and taxpayers if public universities required all graduates to complete the GRE or some other relevant professional exam as a condition for graduation. We need this kind of national standard and outcome measure to enable us to judge how well we do in educating our students and compare the value added by our school relative to other schools. This data would allow evaluation of programs and professors -- great information for students and those working to improve the university.
7. After new programs are approved, accompanied by promises of great results, boards should at some later date compare the program’s actual results and outcomes against the initial promises and projections. I visited Missouri's top board and found that its members followed this practice. For example, they approved a Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics and, in a board review several years later, presented facts showing that annual student enrollments had fallend far short of those projected. The natural tendency is to hide bad results like this. But a board needs to ensure that problems are disclosed and dealt with, and reviews like this can help.
8. Every few years, the board and administration should convene a committee to review administrative costs and champion efforts to undertake cost cutting. Reducing administrative costs is a “continuous improvement” effort that will often involve personnel reductions and changes to longstanding practice. An active, responsible board can help provide the impetus to make these needed changes. In Colorado, one board working closely with the president was able to reduce the administrative layers and re-direct the savings to instruction. This is a story that should inspire us all.
9. Trustees must demand an issues/requests tracking system, so when information is requested or an action is agreed to by the board, the request actually gets done. This is often not the case -- especially if the board secretary is responsible to the administration, not the board.
10. Finally, I recommend that university boards join the Institute for Effective Governance. I have attended sessions conducted by the Association of Governing Boards (the only other organization for trustees besides ACTA, which founded the institute) and read their materials, and the overwhelming message of AGB is for trustees to cheerlead for the campus administration. It has been my experience that AGB too often adopts the proposition that any disagreement with the administration is micromanaging or intolerable failure to support the president. If there were any doubt, recent problems at American University, where the board essentially gave a blank check to the president, should surely settle the matter: American University has been a member of the AGB for decades. The best way to adopt better practices is to visit other university boards, attend their meetings and talk with them about differences in practice. The Institute for Effective Governance (a group of trustees, not administrators) is a great source of best board practices and the most helpful resource I know for boards of trustees.
While I have great admiration for Nebraska’s current and past presidents, and have supported them on the vast majority of issues, I would never trust anyone with the freedom and blank check that trustees almost universally give to their top administrator. Nationwide, university boards simply do not scrutinize the budget the way city councils, county boards and legislatures do. We have great people on university governing boards, but the system is stacked against change and efforts to cut back spending or say no to new policies that continually lift the burden of responsibility from individuals.
To be a responsible board member, one must ask hard questions, do research, and frequently question and oppose college administrators who, understandably, often focus on the narrower interests of the college or university rather than the broader public interest.
In serving as a trustee, if you are not periodically voting “no” at meetings, or preventing some good-for-the-school-but-bad-for-the-public proposals from making it to the board for a vote, then you are not doing the job properly. If you have become such good friends with the school administrators that you find it too uncomfortable to oppose them on a vote, then you are not serving the public interest. If you are spending more time attending the athletic events, parties, and dinners with administrators rather than researching and questioning, then you are not serving as a responsible trustee.
Drew Miller is a member of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, member of two public company boards of directors, and adviser to the Institute for Effective Governance. He is the president of Heartland Management Consulting Group and a colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.
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.
In a February address to Congress, President Obama stated that by 2020 our nation would need to regain its prominence as the world’s higher education leader if we are to enjoy the same kinds of economic success and stability that we have experienced during previous decades. This marked the first real admission by a U.S. president that we are no longer the global leader in higher education access and educational attainment. Furthermore, this statement indicates that we can no longer continue business as usual in the world of higher education policy, and that we must do more than simply argue at the federal level every two to four years about how much to increase the Pell Grant maximum or the aggregate subsidized loan cap for undergraduates. This limited discourse has resulted in stagnant progress for our nation while much of the rest of the world has developed new and more innovative policies. For us to get back on track and reach President Obama’s higher education objective by 2020, we need much higher levels of educational attainment for lower-income and underrepresented students.
Instead of promoting the same old arguments, we recommend a new direction – one that, ironically, has been excluded from federal policy dialogue for over 30 years, despite being an important component of the original Pell Grant or BEOG legislation in 1972.
In the early legislative history of what is now the Pell Grant program, Congress developed federal student aid grants to help economically disadvantaged students attend higher education institutions of their choice. In recognizing the educational disadvantage and substantially higher cost for educational services that accrue to the colleges and universities where many lower-income students enroll, the originally authorized Pell Grant or BEOG legislation envisioned direct institutional grants to colleges and universities that would accompany Pell Grant recipient students. These institutional grants were designed to provide the appropriate educational services necessary for these students to succeed and eventually graduate.
This original program, which was authorized in 1972 but never funded, was known as the “cost of education allowances” and was based on a similar concept advanced in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965, known as Title I. At the heart of this concept is the widely accepted premise that economically disadvantaged students cost more money to educate than students from wealthier backgrounds. Title I was created to provide supplemental federal funding to those elementary and secondary schools with above-average numbers of lower-income students. In 1972, the cost of education allowances program was authorized to achieve the same objective by providing supplemental resource support to colleges and universities in order to provide essential educational assistance to Pell Grant recipient students.
The time has come to resurrect this idea. If we are going to change the way colleges and universities approach economically disadvantaged students, we need to provide actual federal funding for these “cost of education allowances.” Currently, there are no fiscal incentives for colleges and universities to attract and graduate lower-income students. In fact, current federal direct student aid programs in their totality encourage colleges and universities to pursue more free market agendas by providing incentives for tuition-based financial strategies. This essentially means that higher cost institutions, both public and private, have disproportionately benefited from federal student aid funding due to the cost sensitivity embedded in the system. Additionally, by supporting tuition and fee-based strategies, the federal government has allowed state legislatures to more readily opt out of their funding responsibilities, resulting in continuous reductions in state tax support of public higher education. An indirect result of this existing system is that there are no incentives for lower cost institutions that serve the masses or states that strive to keep higher education affordable. One important, but unanticipated, outcome has been that as states increasingly withdraw their public support of public institutions, many universities have found other alternatives to educating more costly lower-income students, such as increasing out-of-state enrollments in exchange for less wealthy in-state students.
Also working against colleges and universities enrolling more lower-income students are current national ranking systems and the use of very simplistic institutional measurements by state authorities. Rankings such as the popular U.S. News & World Report indirectly encourage universities to reduce their lower-income student enrollments by rewarding higher graduation rates, admissions selectivity, and other variables that are aimed at promoting institutional prestige above common purpose. This is just wrong. Many state authorities have also begun prioritizing very simplistic institutional measurements such as graduation rates without any regard for the aggregate numbers of graduates or the socioeconomic status of the students educated at the various institutions.
In light of the many fiscal and cost-related disincentives for enrolling more lower-income students, it should not come as a surprise that we continue to see four-year public and private universities decrease their commitments to larger numbers of lower-income students. In fact, from 1972 to 2006 the nation has witnessed an overall decline in Pell Grant-eligible students as a percentage of the total student population. At public universities, the drop was from 41 percent to 34 percent, and from nearly 22 percent to 14 percent on all private four-year college and university campuses. These significant declines have occurred despite the nearly $100 billion in federal direct student aid grants, subsidized loans, and tax assistance currently available. We think this becomes a civil rights question.
However, for the colleges and universities that have maintained their commitment to lower-income and economically disadvantaged students, which have primarily been state comprehensive universities like the California State University and community colleges, the fiscal disincentives remain problematic. Over the last 30 years, public comprehensive universities and community colleges have seen a substantial decline in fiscal competitiveness when compared with higher tuition public and private institutions. The irony, of course, is that those institutions that serve the broader public good are increasingly fiscally disadvantaged for maintaining these critical missions.
To attempt to change this ominous direction to focus on the new generation of students with the greatest educational needs, it is imperative that we revisit the “cost of education allowances” program and develop a federal Title I type program for higher education institutions. This policy would provide a specific flat “capitation” institutional grant per lower-income student to every college and university that meets a minimal enrollment threshold of 20 percent. To ensure that these funds are properly devoted to student enrichment, this current proposal could be shaped to require that federal funds must be used to support campus-based academic and student service programsspecifically designed to assist Pell Grant-eligible students.Such a program could also create important and much needed fiscal incentives for public and private institutions to not only enroll, but to retain and graduate more lower-income and lower-middle income students. Also, the amount of the federal flat grant award to institutions could be moderately increased or decreased, based on state support for higher education. This would provide incentive for maintaining certain levels of public funding of higher education, similar to the non-supplanting provision found in Title I of ESEA. This additional maintenance of state effort provision could help better stabilize higher education funding, and thus better stabilize student tuition and fees as well.
This recommendation advanced by the California State University has earned support from numerous higher education economists and leaders, as well as from national organizations, such as the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and in the College Board’s recent report “Rethinking Student Aid” where a similar concept was advocated. Developing new federal policies that encourage states to maintain their commitment to financing widespread access and completion in higher education is essential if our nation is to reverse the relative international decline that we have experienced over the last few decades.
For nearly four decades, the federal government has prioritized an individualistic and market-oriented approach to funding higher education by simply putting resources in the hands of students. While this approach has been worthwhile, it has created a series of perverse fiscal and institutional incentives that could be remedied by the implementation of a new policy already authorized as part of the original 1972 legislative strategy. Creating financial incentives for institutions to remain committed or to recommit themselves to the public needs of society should be among the federal government’s highest priorities.
If we are ever going to reach President Obama’s goal of 2020, America is going to have to invest in our most needy students, who are disproportionally students of color, while also investing in those institutions that will serve them.
Charles B. Reed and F. King Alexander
Charles B. Reed is chancellor of the California State University System. F. King Alexander is president of California State University at Long Beach.