The U.S. Supreme Court ruling of 4 to 3 in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin was a close call. For months, supporters of affirmative action in higher education were worried that a majority of the justices would find the University of Texas’ race-conscious affirmative action plan unconstitutional. Opponents were worried about just the opposite. The court upheld affirmative action, as it has done in all the major college affirmative action cases since 1978. So why was it such a closely watched case?
Fisher comes at a moment in history defined by our first black president, as well as by discussions of whether race still matters in public life. It also arrives during a long shift in the debates over how best to address issues of equality of educational opportunity -- whether through the equity-focused policies of the civil rights era or the test- and achievement-focused policies of today.
In her majority opinion in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor suggested that increasing access to higher education through affirmative action is justified by a commitment to a diverse democracy. But opposing camps in the affirmative action debate may have divergent interpretations about what a “diverse” democracy means. To improve the democratic dialogue about affirmative action, stakeholders in the policy process must understand the moral and political beliefs underpinning the terms of the debate.
Although I am a strong supporter of affirmative action, I believe the measured compromises coming out of major college affirmative action rulings over the past 40 years exemplify the strength of our democracy. The debate over affirmative action is an example of an enduring moral disagreement, one that is characterized by different interpretations and emphases of key democratic ideals and values such as equality, liberty and diversity.
After all, the court had previously decided that narrowly tailored affirmative action plans are acceptable ways for universities to create diversity, and in this case, the court agreed with the university that race is “a factor of a factor of a factor.” And the preponderance of research evidence points toward affirmative action as fostering educational opportunities worth wanting as well as more racially and ethnically diverse educational institutions. But the disagreement about affirmative action has never been related to straightforward questions of evidence or what the law allows. If that were the case, then the 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision affirming the constitutionality of using race-conscious affirmative action admissions decisions ought to have put out the fires of controversy.
We in America often overlook an important part of these debates: moral and political disagreements are essential parts of democracy. Ideally they stimulate meaningful dialogue across difference so that those with opposing views can -- at the very least -- understand and respect other reasonable perspectives, or even more productively, move toward what Martin Benjamin calls integrity-preserving compromises over contentious policy issues. That is something that the candidates for president would do well to remember.
In fact, all of us, whatever side we come down on in the affirmative action debate, should remember that disagreements are inevitable in a democracy. The key to a thriving democracy is citizens’ ability to discuss those disagreements, to work to understand the values and beliefs that shape our differences. Democratic dialogue allows us to stand in others’ shoes and see one another’s humanity despite disagreement. Such dialogue is the heart of both education and democracy. Without it, the promise of democratic education and politics will remain unfulfilled.
The U.S. Supreme Court finally drove a stake through the heart of the discredited claim by Abigail Fisher, a white student, that she was illegally discriminated against in her unsuccessful application in 2008 to the University of Texas at Austin.
Yesterday’s decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin let stand the trial court and Fifth Circuit opinions that had held she was treated fairly in her application. She was not admissible to the university through the top 10 percent plan that accords automatic admission to Texas high school students who graduate near the top of their classes. Nor was she admissible through special admissions full-file reviews. And it should be noted that, although whites constitute less than one-third of all K-12 enrollments in Texas, they make up more than half the students admitted to the university through either of these pathways.
Both the percent plan and the full-file review are nonracial approaches to admissions, and the court’s 2003 ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger held that an educational institution could consider an applicant’s race if it did so through such means. Why would UT be the only institution in the country ineligible to follow Grutter?
Fisher’s claim, which did not challenge the percent plan directly, still tried to have it both ways. Even if I cannot be admitted through a nonracial percent plan program, she was basically saying, and even if I am not qualified to be admitted through the discretionary option, I must have been denied my rightful place by less qualified students of color. This entitlement argument is the dictionary-perfect example of a claim of white privilege.
In yesterday’s ruling, the court held: “Considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission.” At the same time, it called on UT to regularly evaluate data and consider student experience in order to “tailor its approach in light of changing circumstances, ensuring that race plays no greater role than is necessary to meet its compelling interest. The university’s examination of the data it has acquired in the years since petitioner’s application, for these reasons, must proceed with full respect for the constraints imposed by the Equal Protection Clause. The type of data collected, and the manner in which it is considered, will have a significant bearing on how the university must shape its admissions policy to satisfy strict scrutiny in the years to come.”
No admissions policy since 1978’s Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision has prompted as much study and data analysis as has this series of cases and Fisher’s claim. And as with any comprehensive admissions policy, it will certainly continue to be evaluated.
This case has threatened to become like Dickens’s Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, dragging on for generations, but it is now time to move on. That is what I do when I lose cases, as in today’s disappointing Texas v. U.S. that allows a Brownsville federal judge’s improvident injunction of President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents programs. I will live to fight another day on this case, and Abigail Fisher and her lawyers should also give it a rest.
This decision restores constitutional order to college admissions, and the court should stop accepting such false claims. The last time a minority applicant of color successfully challenged admissions practices was, ironically, Sweatt v. Painter, more than 65 years ago, when the court examined and struck down the racial exclusion then practiced by the same institution.
Finally, through too many twists and turns, this applicant and her supporters have in essence laid a claim to minority status, even as their numbers belie any disadvantage. Fortunately, the court saw through to the truth of the matter. Affirmative action lives on, for now.
Michael A. Olivas is the Bates Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of Houston Law Center, where he teaches immigration law and higher education law, and interim president of the University of Houston Downtown. He was a consultant to the late Texas State Representative Irma Rangel, whose leadership led to the original percentage plan at the University of Texas.
The U.S. Supreme Court today upheld the University of Texas’s use of racial preferences in student admissions. The vote was 4 to 3, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy writing the majority opinion, joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor (Justice Elena Kagan was recused). Justice Samuel A. Alito wrote a powerful 51-page dissent, which he read from the bench.
The decision came on the unlucky 13th anniversary, to the day, of Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger. And Fisher I, by the way, came down on a June 24, with Regents of the University of California v. Bakke coming down on a June 28. Something about these higher ed racial preference cases always causes the court to struggle with them to the bitter end of the term.
Needless to say, for those of us opposed to racial discrimination in university admissions, the decision is disappointing, for all the reasons that Justice Alito explains. The discrimination that is upheld is untenable in our increasingly multiracial, multiethnic society -- indeed, a society where individual Americans are more and more likely to be multiracial and multiethnic (starting with our president), and where the victims of this politically correct discrimination are more and more likely to be members of racial and ethnic minority groups.
But the silver lining is that today’s decision is a narrow one, both in its scope and in the extent to which it allows the use of racial preferences.
As the court says, UT’s program “is sui generis” and the way the case was litigated “may limit its value for prospective guidance.” A big reason for this, of course, is the university’s use of a “top 10 percent plan,” which was not challenged. Rather surprisingly, by the way, Justice Kennedy seems to suggest that perhaps it should have been. He’s right: if a facially neutral plan is adopted for racial reasons, as quite arguably the percent plan was -- by automatically granting admission to any student graduating in the top 10 percent of their high-school class, the plan was sold to the state Legislature as guaranteeing a fair proportion of black and Latino admittees -- then it is unconstitutional. Put the shoe on the other foot: What if Ole Miss had, back in the day, put its demographers to work and then refused to admit anyone living in a (heavily black) zip code?
Justice Kennedy also warns the university repeatedly in his opinion that it has an ongoing duty to minimize its use of race. And race is, the court says, only a “factor of a factor of a factor” at UT, was considered contextually, does not automatically help members of any group and could in theory help the members of any group, including whites and Asian-Americans. “The fact that race consciousness played a role in only a small portion of admissions decisions should be a hallmark of narrow tailoring ….”
Now, much of this may be quite false as a matter of what really happens at the University of Texas, but other colleges and universities are now obliged to jump through the hoops that the court says UT jumped through. They must, for example and in addition to what’s already been described, do a careful study at the outset to document why using racial preferences is essential to providing the purported educational benefits of diversity and “articulate concrete and precise goals.” Note that, at UT, the ultimate decision makers supposedly did not even know the race of the individual applicants.
More broadly, any college or university’s use of racial preferences must pass “strict scrutiny,” and any institution using preferences must bear the burden of proving that a nonracial approach would not promote its interest in the “educational benefits of diversity” about as well.
Look at it this way: barring a decision by the court that overruled Grutter v. Bollinger and said that colleges and universities may never use racial preferences because the “educational benefits of diversity” are not compelling, lots of institutions would continue to use such preferences, even if the court had left the door open only a tiny crack. If the court had said, “You can use racial preferences only if you can prove that the moon is made of green cheese,” then a number of true-believer presidents would swear on a stack of Bibles that, what do you know, our institutions have found by careful study that the moon is made of green cheese.
That’s why I had hoped that the court would, indeed, overturn Grutter. But since that has not happened, and now likely will not happen for the foreseeable future, then there is no choice but to proceed institution by institution. That’s what the law was before today’s decision, and it remains what the law is after today’s decision. And, realistically, we could not have expected it to be otherwise as we awaited Fisher II.
Sure, it would have been better if the court had given the opponents of racial preferences more ammunition than it did today, but we still have plenty of ammunition on “narrow tailoring” requirements -- for which, by the way, colleges and universities receive “no deference” -- from Bakke and Grutter and Gratz and Fisher I and now from Fisher II.
The bottom line is that the court’s decision leaves plenty of room for future challenges to racial preference policies at other institutions -- and at UT itself for that matter. It’s interesting that, in the run-up to the decision, there was much discussion among liberals that maybe indeed there are better approaches to student admissions than UT’s. Here’s hoping that those discussions continue, prodded along by lawsuits and FOIA requests to ensure that all of Justice Kennedy’s (and Justice O’Connor’s and Justice Powell’s) hoops have been jumped through.
And here’s hoping, as well, that the research continues to document the high costs of the use of racial preferences versus the paltry benefits. The latter are the “educational benefits” for white and Asian students of random observations by black and Latino students. (Yes, that’s what the justification for this discrimination boils down to, as I discuss here.)
And the costs? Just these: it is personally unfair, passes over better qualified students and sets a disturbing legal, political and moral precedent in allowing racial discrimination. It creates resentment. It stigmatizes the so-called beneficiaries in the eyes of their classmates, teachers and themselves, as well as future employers, clients and patients. It mismatches African-American and Latino students with institutions, setting them up for failure. It fosters a victim mind-set, removes the incentive for academic excellence and encourages separatism.
And more: it compromises the academic mission of the university and lowers the overall academic quality of the student body. It creates pressure to discriminate in grading and graduation. It breeds hypocrisy within the college or university and encourages a scofflaw attitude among its officials. It papers over the real social problem of why so many African-American and Latino students are academically uncompetitive. And it gets states and higher education institutions involved in unsavory activities like deciding which racial and ethnic minorities will be favored and which ones not, and how much blood is needed to establish group membership --an untenable legal regime, as I said before, as America becomes an increasingly multiracial, multiethnic society.
So the challenges to racial preferences will continue. Cases already filed against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that had been on hold will now proceed. The struggle goes on.
Roger Clegg is president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, which has joined numerous amicus briefs on behalf of the plaintiff over the course of the Fisher litigation.
The higher education community breathed a sigh of relief today as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the University of Texas at Austin's race-conscious holistic-review admissions policy is lawful under federal constitutional principles. The decision ended nearly a decade of litigation for UT and clearly preserved existing precedent that allows institutions with an interest in the educational benefits of diversity to include the limited consideration of race in enrollment decisions.
So we're done with this stuff, right?
Not exactly. We should celebrate the decision today but be prepared to roll up our sleeves and get back to work tomorrow. Here are a few reasons why:
The decision does preserve existing precedent, but it gives much more specific insight into what it looks like to align with the court's framework and expectations. It's a bit like the court has for decades instructed institutions to wear clothes -- but now they've made clear that those clothes should be a three-piece suit. Specifically, the court noted that UT was able to show a clear set of diversity-related goals and objectives, a deliberate decision-making process that involved university’s highest leadership and stakeholders across the campus, and an impressive arsenal of qualitative and quantitative evidence about the negative impact of its years of solely race-neutral admissions. Though lockstep adaptation of UT's effort is not likely to be an expectation by future courts, all institutions that consider race in enrollment decisions should prepare themselves to make their own case for carrying the "heavy burden" of passing court scrutiny of these practices, informed by the kind of case UT presented.
The court was very clear that institutions have an "ongoing obligation to engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection regarding its admissions policies" (emphasis added). For UT specifically, the court instructed, "The university must continue to use [its] data to scrutinize the fairness of its admissions program; to assess whether changing demographics have undermined the need for a race-conscious policy; and to identify the effects, both positive and negative, of the affirmative-action measures it deems necessary." Notably, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy did not repeat Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's 2003 prediction in Grutter v. Bollinger that race-conscious programs will not be needed in the next 25 years. But he did make clear that any institution that intends to use race-conscious admissions policies should plan to commit to a continuing process of reflection and evolution over time.
Not everyone agrees with the court's conclusion. Justice Samuel A. Alito, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas, wrote a lengthy dissent -- and took the somewhat rare step of reading it from the bench today. In it, he expressed concerns about: 1) the "black box" of admissions and other institutional decision-making processes, 2) whether UT provided a sufficient evidence base to support its policies (especially the link between what happens in the admissions process and what happens after students arrive on campus), 3) how race really fits into admissions decisions, and 4) what kind of diversity is really valued in holistic review. In the weeks ahead, we in higher education should spend more time understanding the views of the dissenting justices and think through ways in which they may inform institutional judgments moving forward. That may be especially important given the other cases pending in federal courts and new complaints filed with federal agencies that ask many of the same questions of a new batch of institutions.
As student demonstrations and demands clearly illustrated over the course of the past months, many campus stakeholders do not believe that colleges and universities have yet fully authentically achieved the diversity goals they assert they have. That is, in part, because of the need to consider not only the diversity of the student body but also whether different members feel included and able to participate fully in campus life. After all, the compelling interest at stake isn't about student body diversity as an end in itself. It is a means toward improved teaching and learning, personal and intellectual development, better civic outcomes, and a lively campus environment where all individuals, ideas and perspectives are welcomed.
And, indeed, the court today noted with approval that, along with statistical information that minority enrollment was decreasing under the solely race-neutral regime, UT included minority students’ experiences of feeling lonely and isolated on the campus. Moving forward, colleges and universities should aim to look for evidence not only of the negative effects of the absence of diversity but also, perhaps even more importantly, of the positive effects of a broadly diverse student body on all members of the institutional community -- with attention to ways in which they can advance fully inclusive learning environments for the benefit of all students.
The decision in Fisher II gives colleges and universities greater confidence that they can continue to use race-conscious enrollment policies to pursue important educational benefits associated with diversity. But it also makes clear that doing so requires "constant" effort and the contributions of almost every member of an institutional community. As the decision concludes, "Considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission. But still, it remains an enduring challenge to our nation’s education system to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity."
I am confident that institutions across the country -- working with their partners in research, law, business and their communities -- will be able to meet the challenge. But the ball is in institutions' court. We must get to work.
Terri Taylor is a senior policy and legal adviser with EducationCounsel LLC. She co-authored the amicus brief submitted by the College Board, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, the Law School Admissions Council and the National Association for College Admissions Counseling to the Supreme Court in Fisher II and helps lead the College Board's Access and Diversity Collaborative.
Matthew Daniel Eddy’s fascinating paper “The Interactive Notebook: How Students Learned to Keep Notes During the Scottish Enlightenment” is bound to elicit a certain amount of nostalgia in some readers. (The author is a professor of philosophy at Durham University; the paper, forthcoming in the journal Book History, is available for download from his Academia page.)
Interest in the everyday, taken-for-granted aspects of scholarship (the nuts and bolts of the life of the mind) has grown among cultural historians over the past couple of decades. At the same time, and perhaps not so coincidentally, many of those routines have been in flux, with card catalogs and bound serials disappearing from university libraries and scholarship itself seeming to drift ever closer to a condition of paperlessness. The past few years have seen a good deal of work on the history of the notebook, in all its many forms. I think Eddy’s contribution to this subspecialty may prove a breakthrough work, as Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote: A Curious History (1997) and H. J. Jackson’s Marginialia: Readers Writing in Books (2001) were in the early days of metaerudition.
“Lecture notes,” Eddy writes, “as well as other forms of writing such as letters, commonplace books and diaries, were part of a larger early modern manuscript world which treated inscription as an active force that shaped the mind.” It’s the focus on note taking itself -- understood as an activity bound up with various cultural imperatives -- that distinguishes notebook studies (pardon the expression) from the research of biographers and intellectual historians who use notebooks as documents.
Edinburgh in the late 18th century was buzzing with considerable philosophical and scientific activity, but the sound in the lecture notes Eddy describes came mainly from student noses being held to the grindstone. For notebook keeping was central to the pedagogical experience -- a labor-intensive and somewhat costly activity, deeply embedded in the whole social system of academe. Presumably the less impressive specimens became kindling, but the lecture notebooks Eddy describes were the concrete embodiment of intellectual discipline and craftsmanship -- multivolume works worthy of shelf space in the university library or handed down to heirs. Or, often enough, sold, whether to less diligent students or to the very professors who had given the lectures.
The process of notebook keeping, as Eddy reconstructs it, ran something like this: before a course began, the student would purchase a syllabus and a supply of writing materials -- including “quares” of loose papers or “paper books” (which look pocket-size in a photo) and a somewhat pricier “note book” proper, bound in leather.
The syllabus included a listing of topics covered in each lecture. Eddy writes that “most professors worked very hard to provide lecture headings that were designed to help students take notes in an organized fashion” as they tried to keep up with “the rush of the learning process as it occurred in the classroom.” Pen or pencil in hand, the student filled up his quares or paper book with as much of the lecture material as he could grasp and condense, however roughly. The pace made it difficult to do more than sketch the occasional diagram, and Eddy notes that “many students struggled to even write basic epitomisations of what they had heard.”
The shared challenge fostered the student practice of literally comparing notes -- and in any case, even the most nimble student was far from through when the lecture was done. Then it was necessary to “fill out” the rough notes, drawing on memory of what the professor said, the headings in the syllabus and the course readings -- a time-consuming effort that could run late into the night. “Extending my notes taken at the Chemical and Anatomical lectures,” one student wrote in his diary, “employs my whole time and prevents my doing any thing else. Tired, uneasy & low-spirited.”
As his freshman year ended, another wrote, “My late hours revising my notes taken at the lectures wore on my constitution, and I longed for the approach of May and the end of the lectures.”
Nor was revision and elaboration the end of it. From the drafts, written on cheap paper, students copied a more legible and carefully edited text into their leather notebooks, title pages in imitation of those found in printed books. The truly devoted student would prepare an index. “While many of them complained about the time this activity required,” Eddy writes, “I have found no one who questioned the cognitive efficacy that their teachers attached to the act of copying.”
Making a lecture notebook was the opposite of multitasking. It meant doing the same task repeatedly, with deeper attention and commitment at each stage. Eddy surmises that medical students who prepared especially well-crafted lecture notebooks probably attended the same course a number of times, adding to and improving the record, over a course of years.
At the same time, this single-minded effort exercised a number of capacities. Students developed “various reading, writing and drawing skills that were woven together into note-taking routines … that were in turn infused with a sense of purpose, a sense that the acts of note taking and notebook making were just as important as the material notebook that they produced.”
You can fill an immaterial notebook with a greater variety of content (yay, Evernote!), but I’m not sure that counts as either an advantage or an improvement.
As a lifelong champion of civil rights and a firm believer in fighting for what is right, I applaud our young people for the various protests they have undertaken in recent years, such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. Recently, the young brothers and sisters of MRC Student Coalition at Matteo Ricci College, Seattle University, have taken up such a fight based on curriculum concerns. This protest, however, has become personal for me, since it is in part centered on my autobiography entitled Nigger, and the fact that some students became offended when Jodi Kelly, dean of Matteo Ricci College, recommended Nigger to a student to read.
While I strongly support their right to air their grievances, I ask these students to ask themselves if the scale of their movement is appropriate for a curriculum discussion. Can students adequately connect a recommendation to read my autobiography with their larger curriculum issues?
I am not offended by Dean Kelly's use of the word “nigger.” In fact, I am pleased that she has the foresight to want to give these young men and women the knowledge, insight and experience of a civil rights activist that might just help them understand life a little better. I am disappointed that they seemed to have stopped at the title instead of opening the book and reading its contents. Years ago my mama told me, “Son, sticks and stones can break your bones, but names will never hurt you.” I grew up thinking that Richard was what they called me at home, but my real name was Nigger.
That’s why I named my autobiography Nigger, because it only echoes what “they” called me -- it doesn’t define who I am. People called me nigger in 1964 when I marched with Martin Luther King Jr., when I sat in the Birmingham jail with him and when I walked across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. When I fasted for 72 days protesting the Vietnam War, the white folks and even some black folks said, “Look at that crazy nigger.”
I have frequently said that sometimes black folks focus on the wrong injustices. For example, black folks tolerate Howard University being named after General Howard, who became famous for killing Indian children, and Spelman College being named after the grandmother of Nelson Rockefeller. Many times we rise up for injustices that are not the most oppressive. I frequently speak on college campuses and explain that we were fighting for liberation, not education. A liberated mind requires a deeper historical and analytical understanding about the good, bad and ugly regarding America’s past, and its future.
I tell students they should be concerned that some of their classmates can’t walk down the streets in certain cities without the fear of being shot by both gangbangers and misguided police officers. They should be concerned about violence and sex assaults on college campuses. The National Rifle Association wants to arm students -- and that doesn't bother you? Students should be concerned about the exorbitant cost of education and subsequently student debt, the next financial crisis. Also, students should be concerned about a job market that is not going to be waiting on them upon graduation.
Some students want to punish Dean Kelly for giving them some good advice. Somehow, her advice and the hypersensitivity to her suggesting my book by its title managed to get dragged into the curriculum debate. By adding a hot-button racial component to that debate, the students managed to water down their main objectives. Movements need to be clear and well defined, yet they rarely are.
I have read the students’ list of demands, which include issues such as “Classrooms which encourage healthy academic discourse.” That includes fostering dissent, analyzing diverse narratives, discussing the intention of others and dealing with microaggressions. Classrooms must also provide space to discuss how books from previous generations may be problematic yet remain very much connected to modern-day issues.
There’s a blurb on the cover of my book from The New York Times. It says, “Powerful and ugly and beautiful … a moving story of a man who deeply wants a world without malice and hate and is doing something about it.” I’m proud that Dean Kelly recognized my autobiography as something that students of all races can learn from. I am also proud and pleased that my autobiography Nigger was among her collection of books.
I do not presume to know more than professional educators. Yet it appears to me that Dean Kelly was encouraging healthy academic discourse. I ask the students to ask themselves if they objectively considered Dean Kelly’s real intentions and if they themselves are willing to engage in academic discourse. This seems like an issue that is bigger than one dean. It also seems that if both sides were to have meaningful discussions, they would find common ground.
The person who has read and is now recommending my autobiography to her students is most likely not racist. My communication with Dean Kelly leads me to believe that she respects students’ intelligence enough to share with them the autobiography of a black man who was honest enough to name his book Nigger.
Students, your dean didn’t name the book -- I did. I am hopeful that my autobiography will become required reading at Matteo Ricci College -- and I am certain that it will be enlightening. I’ll even provide the books for free. Continue to be respectful and peaceful, loving and lovable.
God bless you,
Dick Gregory is an American civil rights activist, social critic, writer, entrepreneur and comedian.
No concept is arguably more popular in higher education policy today or seems to have broader consensus than institutional “skin in the game”: the idea that colleges need to be on some sort of financial hook when their students don’t succeed.
Students and families are spending near-record amounts on postsecondary training, yet students are dropping out and defaulting on loans at disturbingly high rates. Mix in high-profile collapses like Corinthian Colleges and near-daily stories of college graduates struggling to find employment, and we get policy makers coming to the disheartening conclusion that our higher education institutions are incapable of doing the very thing we expect of them -- creating capable graduates -- unless threatened with financial sanctions.
Yet is this really the case? Colleges spend a lot to recruit and retain students, and every one that leaves without completing represents lost time, money and effort that require more recruitment and retention dollars to replace him or her. Students who don’t finish or who complete but struggle to find employment create nothing but negative reputational outcomes that institutions must invest both time and resources to counteract. Plus, when those same students leave with loan debt and struggle to repay it, the institution may yet again spend dollars and effort on default prevention services.
Put it all together and it’s pretty clear that when students fall off a successful education path, institutions pay a very real financial price. But this is exactly what having skin in the game entails. So why are we pushing for policy and regulation to accomplish what’s already taking place?
Making colleges pay a second time for poor outcomes doesn’t make much sense, although critics will say that market-driven financial penalties are obviously just not doing enough to change institutional behavior. To believe that, however, we have to believe institutions, as producers, actually prefer to see some of their education outputs fail.
That’s awfully strange. If institutions could control how much students learn, then why would they consciously choose to send unprepared graduates into the labor market where they struggle to find and keep employment? And if they could control who graduates and who doesn’t, what economic rationale do they have for producing a mix of graduates and dropouts? If they really had a choice, why would they ever produce anything other than graduates?
Colleges today face a continuous barrage of criticism about whether they provide value for money, and so we’re left to ask under what circumstances colleges that capably control learning, degree completion and postgraduate employment outcomes would actually opt to produce substandard products. Does a business approach that thrives on threats of greater regulatory scrutiny exist? Does a “student failure” model bringing about additional enrollment management, default prevention and reputational costs make operational sense?
It’s pretty obvious that if institutions could control the types of outcomes that skin-in-the-game proposals wanted to see improvements on they’d already be doing so. What colleges and universities wouldn’t benefit from high graduation rates, stellar job placement statistics and graduates who earned enough money to comfortably pay off their student loans?
It’s also why the argument that the financial costs institutions already face just aren’t harsh enough doesn’t make much sense. It’s like suggesting that my dog doesn’t speak English because I’m just not spending enough time teaching him. The outcome and process we’re trying to link don’t fit the way we think they do.
What’s missing from the equation is the idea that academic success is a two-way street where students’ academic preparation, motivation and effort do as much to shape the outcomes we care about as the resources institutions provide them. In its absence, the obvious consequences of policies that only hold colleges accountable for outcomes that they share control over is that they put their effort into the things they can control -- which, in this case, is picking students they think are most likely to succeed.
All of this means that the losers from skin-in-the-game proposals end up being students who have less academic preparation and who come from underresourced school districts. We actually end up creating undermatching by putting greater pressure on colleges to pick “winners” and discouraging them from taking chances on individuals who may benefit the most from the type of education they offer.
It’s also likely to hurt institutions with open admissions policies and that currently enroll larger percentages of minority and nontraditional students. Community colleges, with their limited state budgets and high transfer rates, would suffer most, but so would any college drawing large populations of students from disadvantaged communities. In the long run, those institutions could face unsustainable financial and reputational costs.
There’s certainly a place for risk sharing in higher education, which is why institutions currently pay the real financial costs I described earlier. But if what we care about is making institutions more responsive to students’ long-run needs and expectations, then the solution lies in policies and practices that make such goals their focus.
Income-Share Agreements (ISAs) -- whereby colleges finance their students’ education in return for a fractional share of those students’ future income -- are a good example. They create not only financial penalties but also financial rewards for institutions that help students achieve long-term, sustained success. Driving more institutional revenues through ISA-style agreements also discourages the kinds of deceptive marketing practices that policy makers believe institutions engage in since colleges and universities would, over time, end up having to financially absorb the costs of misrepresenting their programs’ job placement prospects.
The fact is that it’s easy to think that simply imposing penalties on bad actors will fix the problem, yet the logic has to be there to justify the approach. The basis on which risk sharing proposals today are being crafted doesn’t meet the standards of sound policy. We owe it to both colleges and students to craft policies that work toward, not against, the system’s overall objectives.
Carlo Salerno is a Washington, D.C.-based education economist and private consultant.
We need only two things to convince our communities, public officials, local employers and parents of students and prospective students about the value of a degree in the humanities: stories and data.
In the humanities, we have always used stories well. We can assemble lots of anecdotes about our graduates and how, now that they’re gainfully employed, they use what they learned in our classes. Anecdotes are clearly not enough, however. We’re definitely not winning the public relations contest about what aspects of public higher education are worth investing in. So how can we supplement our good stories with good data, while keeping the discussion firmly rooted in the humanities?
In an effort to share strategies and to get better at making the case for the value of humanities education, a group of about 40 humanities faculty members and administrators, local employers, and public humanities representatives in southern New England got together recently. We talked about what student success in the humanities looks like, how we could measure what it gives students and how we would know when we’ve helped students to achieve it.
The question of student success is on everyone’s radar these days, and the discussion usually refers to retention and graduation rates. Our discussion in New England pointed a different way, however. We wanted to bring employers into the conversation to help them to understand what our students are learning and to help us to learn what they value in new employees. That is especially important for those of us who take issues of racial and economic diversity seriously. As Karen Cardozo, assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, pointed out at the meeting, if we can show that humanities degrees have value in the workplace, we can assure working-class students, first-generation students and students of color that following a passion for history, philosophy, literature or music can lead to a good job, too.
Here’s how our meeting went:
First, we assembled by tables, trying to making sure an employer and a public humanities representative were at each table. (Public humanities representatives include those who work at museums, state National Endowment for the Humanities affiliates, cultural councils and the like.) Employers from publishing, local government and local small businesses also participated. (We hope to involve some larger employers next time we meet.) We also mixed in representatives of two- and four-year colleges, as well as public and private institutions.
Each table considered one question at a time, and we then discussed our answers in the group as a whole. Here are the questions:
What can a humanities graduate do?
What (else) should a humanities graduate be able to do?
How can we make sure students graduate with this knowledge or these skills?
How can we measure or assess whether they can do what we say they can do?
It was great to have employers at each table, and we moved them around between groups for each question so the tables could get different perspectives. Some of the employers were already savvy about what a humanities education delivers; others weren’t sure what exactly constitutes the humanities.
Together, we compiled a list of the skills that we think graduates have cultivated in their humanities education:
Writing skills, with style
Cultural competencies, intercultural sensitivity and an understanding of cultural and historical context, including on global topics
As part of our list, we also agreed that graduates should have the ability to:
Construct complex arguments
Provide attention to detail and nuance (close reading)
Ask the big questions about meaning, purpose, the human condition
Communicate in more than one language
Understand differences in genre (mode of communication)
Identify and communicate appropriate to each audience
Be comfortable dealing with gray areas
Think abstractly beyond an immediate case
Appreciate differences and conflicting perspectives
Identify problems as well as solving them
Read between the lines
Receive and respond to feedback
Then we asked what we think our graduates should be able to do but perhaps can’t -- or not as a result of anything we’ve taught them, anyway. The employers were especially valuable here, highlighting the ability to:
Use new media, technologies and social media
Work with the aesthetics of communication, such as design
Perform a visual presentation and analysis
Identify, translate and apply skills from course work
Perform data analysis and quantitative research
Be comfortable with numbers
Work well in groups, as leader and as collaborator
Identify processes and structures
Write and speak from a variety of rhetorical positions or voices
Support an argument
Identify an audience, research it and know how to address it
Know how to locate one’s own values in relation to a task one has been asked to perform
They also mentioned a need for better technological, project-management and conversational and interview skills.
We also discussed creating tables that would link the knowledge, skills and aptitudes of the first two questions to the kinds of work students might do after graduation, task by task. We’ve assigned that work to the participating employers.
To make sure that our students can graduate with the knowledge and skills we want to see, we know we would have to make some changes to the way our degrees are structured. Some of the changes we talked about at the meeting were:
Providing more faculty development to help professors be more explicit and intentional in language about the skills being taught
Creating a one-credit course on the relation of humanities to work and the professions
Using required courses (general education) and events (orientation) to introduce the need to connect courses and skills
Being intentional about double majoring, adding minors that enable students to pair professional training with humanities
Using successful alumni in programming
Integrating student employment with academics, through course work or portfolio reflection
Infusing reflective writing into courses
Encouraging community engagement with the curriculum
Providing avenues for student creativity to demonstrate higher-order skills
Taking on the idea of maker space—what are the humanities making?
Giving students self-assessment skills
Developing portfolios that include both work and reflection linking course work to other kinds of engagement, such as employment and student activities
Structured work shadowing opportunities
Creating local employer/faculty advisory groups to determine workforce needs and establish a common language
Building reflection, work, community engagement and shadowing into the credit structure
Capitalizing in four-year colleges and universities on work already being done at two-year institutions
The final task at our meeting was to come up with ways to measure whether we are doing what we say we are doing now, as well as if we pursue the changes we want to make. We developed the following list:
Alumni surveys, to determine short- and long-term impact of humanities education
Student surveys, at entry and exit, about how their ways of thinking have changed
Internship supervisor surveys
Determining whether local employers hire our graduates, why or why not, and whether those graduates have the needed knowledge and skills
Using capstone courses to assess ways students have been asked to combine humanities and work
Gathering information that can contribute to big data. Who else is collecting what we seek, and how can we combine their data with ours?
That was the most difficult assignment, and it’s the shortest list that our group developed. That, of course, was not surprising. Assessment has always been challenging, as any regional accreditation team can tell you.
But we had started the afternoon asserting that we want the general public to support humanities education and to understand the value of what we do, and so we knew we must to find good ways to collect evidence. That’ll be a topic in our next meeting.
We agreed that the next step, when we reconvene in May, will be for all of us to have made some progress on our own campuses toward both adding education in the new skills we think humanities students need and finding ways of measuring our success.
If you’re working on humanities student success initiatives, what tactics are you trying? With whom are you working? Are you getting any traction in your institution or region?
Making the case for the humanities can start on the campus, but it ultimately has to convince funders, parents and employers, too. We’re hoping to make southern New England the first Humanities Success Zone in the country -- where an employer with some job openings asks, “What kind of person would add some real value to our company beyond the specific skills we need for this job?” We want the answer that springs to mind to be: a humanities graduate.
Paula M. Krebs is dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bridgewater State University, in Massachusetts. On Twitter, she is @PaulaKrebs.