Can Higher Education Solve America’s Economic Crisis?

(And if It Can, Then Why Does America Still Have an Economic Crisis?)

Many of America’s most serious problems are linked to the state of its economy. Consider: income inequality has been increasing for the past three decades; too many of today’s jobs pay far less than did the jobs that disappeared during the Great Recession; most family incomes are flat or declining, leading to a sense of economic deprivation that promotes depression, family strife, and alcohol and drug abuse. The stridency and deep political divisions we have seen in recent years owe, at least in part, to the seemingly irreconcilable differences of opinion regarding the right path forward for our nation, specifically whether that path should consist of more, or fewer, hands-on programs by the federal government aimed at strengthening the economy.

The thesis underlying this collection of eight essays is that our country’s economic problems are solvable, that the malaise in which we find ourselves today need not be permanent, and that the driver of the new economy, the change agent that we need to employ, is higher education — but not higher education as we have traditionally known it. Rather, we need to think about creating public-private partnerships on a far larger scale, with institutions of higher education working with business, industry, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the one hand, and local, state, and federal governments on the other, to develop shared expectations of outcomes in which all of the partners are winners. The highly disaggregated and inequitable system of higher education practices we have today, wobbling precariously on a flimsy base of tradition and complacency, must be replaced with something far more integrated, one grounded on a solid foundation of evidence, and with a clear and realizable purpose.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s begin at the beginning.

Part 1: 

What Are the Factors Creating Our Economic Crisis? Analyzing Opposing Opinions and Reconciling Contradictory Conclusions

Is America still in crisis economically? Or have we now recovered from the hangover of the Great Recession?

In a world where contrary information is promptly labeled as “alternative facts” or “fake news,” it is difficult to identify a common data set on which all can agree — and, absent such an agreement, it is impossible to answer those questions, let alone to develop a consensus path forward. But at least some of the confusion can be eliminated by a careful analysis of what is being said. The old adage of the blind men describing an elephant is useful to us here.

Employment is up/workforce participation is down

Both statements are true.

In 2016, the United States added 2.2 million new jobs, and 1.4 million additional jobs were added in the first eight months of 2017.[1] The unemployment rate has fallen markedly over the last eight years, and now stands at 4.1 percent, the lowest rate of unemployment since 2001[2]. But the percentage of people of working age who are actually employed has fallen dramatically since the Great Recession, and this drop is especially acute for those with no college degree. Among men aged 25 – 54, 94.5 per cent were employed in 1980, but only 88.5 percent are employed today.[3] This is one of the lowest percentages among economically developed countries. The comparable figure in Japan today, for example, is 95.5 percent. So we have the apparent paradox of a low level of unemployment coupled with a historically low percentage of employed people.

And the problem is not just that there are many more people of employment age who are not working today, as compared to 2008. One-third of these non-working people are receiving disability payments, and an equal number are estimated to be using prescription pain medications, most of which are opioids.[4] The absence of a job detracts significantly from the quality of life for these people, and burdens society with Medicaid and welfare costs much higher than they were a decade or two ago — and the inability of prospective workers to pass drug tests keeps them unemployed[5].

Incomes are rising/incomes are stagnant

Both statements are true.

In inflation-adjusted dollars, median individual income peaked in 1973. Median family income, because women continued to join the workforce, did not peak until 1997—but since then, the percentage of women in the workforce has declined, as increasing numbers of women of working age have left the workforce to care for aging family members.[6]  In the last two years, the median family income has increased by 3.2 percent, to $59,059, but is still 2.4 percent lower than in 1999, and 1.6 percent lower than in 2007.[7]

But it is also true that median income does not capture the full story. Incomes have actually fallen for much of the workforce — notably, those toward the bottom of the income scale — even as they have risen, often dramatically, for those near the top of the scale. For example, over the past decade, and measured in inflation-adjusted dollars, median household income has fallen by $571 for families in the bottom quintile of income, and risen by $13,479 for families in the top quintile.[8] Moreover, the traditional bell curve of incomes, in which most workers were near the middle of the range, has inverted such that incomes are clustered toward the ends of the curve, with far fewer workers in the mid-range.

So some workers have seen a significant increase in earnings in recent years, even as others have waited in vain for salary increases, or have been forced to accept jobs paying significantly less than their pre-Great Recession jobs.

Whether incomes are seen as improving or not is very much an individual perspective.

The economy is barely growing/the economy continues to improve

National economic growth is measured quarterly, and is always subject to subsequent revision as more comprehensive data later become available. Thus, it is not unusual to see a particular figure announced (to widespread gloom or fanfare, depending on the number), only to see that figure adjusted upward or downward months later.

The point is, making statements about the state of the economy based on the latest quarterly number is risky and ultimately not particularly helpful. (For example, quarterly increases over the past eight quarters have ranged from 0.2 percent to 3.1 percent.[9]) On the other hand, historic data over many quarters reveal a much more useful picture of how well the economy has been doing. As measured in that way, the growth of the American economy over the past decade has been tepid at best (only five of the 52 quarters in the past 13 years grew at 4 percent or better[10]), and growth has not yet returned to levels typically seen following the end of a recession.

The takeaway is that our economy has fundamentally changed since the Great Recession of 2008, because the nature of the jobs available has changed. Low-skill, service jobs have proliferated, but they pay poorly. (For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be 4-million new jobs in health care over the next decade, and more than 400,000 of those jobs will be for home health aides — but the median salary of home health aides, a job requiring only a high school diploma, is just $22,600.[11]) Certain well-paying high-skill jobs will continue to be abundant — but millions of mid-level jobs in the trades and especially in manufacturing have disappeared, and are not coming back.

The economy is divided into haves and have-nots — and there are far too many of the latter for our economy to be called “robust.” Too many Americans are living at or near poverty levels, a circumstance that should not be acceptable to anyone who cares about the quality of life of the American people. For these unemployed or underemployed members of our society, the economy is still very much in crisis. Our collective challenge is to prepare workers for the jobs of today and tomorrow, rather than waiting in vain for yesterday’s jobs to return.

America needs a change in the status quo, in terms of educational attainment levels, and Americans cannot assume that our current educational models are up for the task. (If they were, we wouldn’t be still having the problem of far too many marginally employed people.) And all Americans must collectively own this responsibility, rather than idly standing by, waiting for someone else to assume it for us.

How might this task best be accomplished? Next week: Tax cuts or education stimulus?

[1] “Incomes Jump, Adding Twist To Tax Battle,” The New York Times, September 13, 2017

[2] “Yellen’s Legacy: Progress, But a Sense of a Job Unfinished,” The New York Times, November 3, 2017

[3] “Labor Shortage Gives Workers an Edge,” The New York Times, September 20, 2017

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Workers Needed, but Drug Testing Takes a Toll,” The New York Times, July 25, 2017

[6] “The Weight of Elder Care on Women,” The New York Times, December 20, 2017

[7] “Incomes Jump, Adding Twist to Tax Battle,” The New York Times, September 13, 2017

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Economy’s 3% Spurt Emboldens Tax Cut Supports (and Critics),” The New York Times, October 28, 2017

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Without changes in education, the future of work will leave more people behind,” The Hechinger Report, October 31, 2017

 

 

Recognizing the Indigenous People of New England

Dear Roger Williams University community,

The arrival of Europeans in the New World is celebrated in the United States with Columbus Day in recognition of one of the earliest of the European explorers. But, of course, Columbus Day reflects the European perspective, and it does so at the expense of the indigenous peoples in the Americas, whose lives and cultures were forever transformed (and often lost) with the arrival of the Europeans.

During the last academic year, both the Student Senate and the Faculty Senate passed resolutions urging Roger Williams University to recognize and commemorate the fact that the land on which our campus now sits was, for untold generations before the arrival of Europeans, occupied by Native Americans. The two Senates hoped to provide some balance in how we recognize the “discovery” of America by having RWU declare an “Indigenous People’s Day,” and to so note the day on the University calendar. As president, I am accepting this recommendation, but with an important modification.

Columbus Day is not a particularly good choice for Indigenous People’s Day because it is a holiday and classes are not in session. Accordingly, at least for this year, I am declaring the balance of the week that begins with Columbus Day—that is, Tuesday, October 10th, through Friday, October 13th—to be “Indigenous People’s Week.” After all the years of ignoring them, it’s reasonable to conclude that the indigenous peoples of our state deserve more than just a single day.

It is important to note that the underlying intent goes beyond a simple notation on our academic year calendar. Rather, we anticipate and expect activities inside and outside the classroom that every year will provide our students the opportunity to develop a balanced view of the impact of European colonization of our region by ensuring that the voices of the indigenous peoples are heard. Given the presence of King Philip’s Chair within sight of the campus, it seems particularly appropriate for Roger Williams University to be taking this action – and to do so this year, when the campus discussion theme is “Talking about Race, Gender, and Power.”

Sincerely,

Donald J. Farish,

President

Convocation 2017: Stick up for each other. Support each other.

Today is the only time I will be able to speak to you as a class until Commencement, in May of 2021, so I want to take full advantage to use my few minutes with you today to best effect.

Let me begin with an apparent paradox: a college education is a profoundly personal experience that you nevertheless undertake as a community. Each of you will be uniquely shaped by the experience, even though that experience is broadly shared.

I can illustrate this concept by using a metaphor that is appropriate for a campus with a nationally ranked sailing team. You should each think of yourselves as the captain of your own ship, undertaking a four-year voyage. You can travel as far as you wish in that time, or you can sail in circles close to your home port. You can make many ports of call, or none at all. You can be daring in your decisions, or play things safe every step of the way. You can choose to explore ideas and cultures that you may find different and mind-expanding, or you can spend all your time in the comfort of the company of those who think and act exactly as you do. But in four years, you will own your decisions. There are no “do-overs.” You get to do this once, so my advice to you today is to make the most of your experience. Don’t be one of those college graduates who almost immediately starts regretting the opportunities missed, the doors left unopened, the pathways not taken, while you were in college.

But even as each of you will have your own unique voyage, you are doing so as part of a flotilla of boats, all setting sail together. You certainly will not all sail as one, but there will be others with you at various points in your voyage. You will always be a part of the Roger Williams University class of 2021, and much of what you experience in the next four years you will share with members of your class—and some of your classmates will become lifelong friends.

The job of the faculty and staff is to assist you on your voyage, not so much by telling you where and how to sail, but by aiding you in making choices that will be in your interest, and by helping you become increasingly self-reliant, and entirely capable of responding effectively to everything from speed bumps to full-blown catastrophes—because you will inevitably see both during your lifetime.

And that leads me to the two points I want to make today:

 

  • First, however confident or insecure you may feel today, things are always easier when you are surrounded by your friends. So task number one is for us to convince you to stop seeing yourselves as 1150 individuals, and help you to realize instead that you are a community of 1150 souls, some of whom you will come to care deeply for, and some of whom will care deeply for you. Our job, then, is to create bonding experiences to facilitate the community building that will help undergird your success as students. We do this in many ways, in class and outside class, but front-loaded in your freshman year, so that you very quickly move from feeling like a person surrounded by strangers to a person surrounded by friends. So understand what we are trying to do, and go along with it. It’s really in your best interests.
  • Second—and this is the hard part—in order to make you self-reliant, and in order to prepare you to deal with the unexpected once you leave RWU, we have to confront you with ideas and concepts that you may find disquieting, or in contrast to your current world view. You can’t survive in college on a diet that is exclusively the mental equivalent of comfort food. You have to allow yourself to be challenged about what you know, and think, and believe, not with an eye to changing everything that you currently accept, but to strengthen your understanding of what you know, and think, and believe, just as you would strengthen your muscles to do better in athletics competitions.

 

Let me continue with this thought for a moment. At Roger Williams, we believe in academic freedom: the right of our faculty to introduce difficult and challenging topics and ideas into the experience they create for their students in the classroom. In addition, we believe in the virtues of the First Amendment:  no prior restraint on what is published in a free press or on what people want to present as ideas and positions that others may find uncomfortable or confronting. The idea of free speech is meaningless if it refers only to ideas with which you already agree. So we do not protect you from ideas. In fact, we very deliberately challenge you with them.

But we also honor our namesake, Roger Williams, one of the more remarkable men in the history of America, and a person about whom you will soon know more. We strongly value diversity, inclusion, equity, and civility, just as Roger Williams did in the 17th-century. To you as incoming students, and especially in light of the expressions of bigotry and intolerance we all saw on the news at Charlottesville, I underscore our on-going commitment to honor and protect ALL members of our campus community, regardless of race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, religion, sexual orientation, differing abilities, or economic status. These are not words we say, and then ignore. They are central to who we are as a university. This year, for example, the theme we are using to organize campus conversations is “Talking about Race, Gender, and Power.” Our Provost will provide some details when he speaks in a few minutes, but my point is that rather than avoiding difficult topics, we actively seek to engage in conversations about them, all with an eye towards preparing you for life after graduation.

But what about ideas that focus on hate and rejection, and that promote not understanding but fear? It is very difficult to be a successful student if you are forced to study in fear. Job number one is for us to make you feel as safe as we possibly can, not by protecting you from ideas, but by protecting you from physical violence, sexual assault, discrimination, intolerance, and hate. And I want you to work with me on this. Accept that an attack on any member of the class of 2021 is an attack on the entire class. Stick up for each other. Support each other. Intervene, if you see one of your class members being picked on, or belittled, or in danger of being attacked. Call your RA, or your CORE, or speak to your instructors, or contact me. Do not allow your own core values to be whittled away and diminished because you allowed bad behavior to occur when you could have intervened.

To come full circle, here you are, about to start your college career. Graduation is so far in the future that you can hardly conceive of it. After all, today those four years represent more than 20 percent of your lifetime—but you will be astonished by how quickly those years will pass—so make the most of them.

Have a great first year, class of 2021! Go Hawks!

Forward to the Past

In the 1985 movie, Back to the Future, Marty McFly travels 30 years back in time to change the future of his parents’ lives. In 2017, President Donald Trump seems intent on reversing certain of the actions of past presidential administrations, most notably those of President Barack Obama, to create a future in America that returns us to the past—hence, Forward to the Past.

I identified 13 threats to higher education and its values poised by Mr. Trump’s election in my essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education on Nov. 15, 2016.  Sadly, virtually all of them have either happened, or are in the offing.

Some of these threats have the potential to affect profoundly certain members of the Roger Williams University community. As the University’s president, it is my responsibility to declare our unwavering support of ALL of our community’s members, and I do so now with respect to three distinct threats.

Title IX

Rumblings out of the Department of Education represent cause for concern. First, the acting head of the department’s Office of Civil Rights, Candice Jackson, said that “90 percent” of campus rape cases involved alcohol and female students with subsequent regrets (a comment for which Ms. Jackson subsequently apologized, describing it as “flippant”). Then, Secretary DeVos scheduled a hearing at which those alleging to be sexual assault victims and those claiming to be wrongly accused of sexual assault each were given equal time to testify (implying that each side was somehow equivalent in numbers and therefore deserving of the same amount of attention).

Second, there are rising concerns that “preponderance of the evidence”—the most commonly used evidence standard on college campuses, and the one enshrined in the famous 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter during the Obama administration— may be replaced by “clear and convincing evidence”, a higher standard that would benefit the accused.

Over the years, campus surveys have consistently shown that about 20 percent of female students claim to have been victims of sexual assault during their college years. Sexual assault is a huge issue on college campuses, but one that, until quite recently, was not given the priority and attention it deserves. Campuses are still struggling to create policies and procedures that incorporate due process standards and that fairly and impartially balance the rights and interests of the parties—but to introduce a new evidentiary standard at this point would not only require rewriting campus protocols but would also (and much more importantly) roll back the rights and protections of female students, and return us to an era we in higher education thought had been permanently relegated to the past.

Until and unless the law is changed, RWU will continue to maintain our heightened protection of female students, and we will continue to use the “preponderance of the evidence” standard in sexual assault cases.

Affirmative Action

Affirmative Action began in the 1960s as a means of favoring members of underrepresented groups in hiring and college admissions decisions, and in the awarding of government contracts. At the time, the focus was almost exclusively on expanding opportunities for African-Americans.

Over the years, U.S. Courts of Appeal and Supreme Court decisions have severely narrowed the application of affirmative action such that, today, race may not be considered in hiring decisions, although it still is permitted as one of many factors that can properly be used in college admissions.

Recently, The New York Times reported that the Justice Department was seeking lawyers to pursue compliance investigations and federal lawsuits that would target affirmative action programs in college admissions. Interestingly, the report focused on a case involving Asian-Americans at Harvard. The issue was not that their admit numbers were disproportionately low, relative to the overall percentage of Asians in American society (there is actually a much higher percentage of Asian students at Harvard than there are Asians in the broader society). Rather, it was that, on purely meritocratic grounds, less able students of other races were being admitted to Harvard instead of more Asians.

If the Supreme Court were to rule in favor of the Asian students, thereby increasing their numbers at highly competitive colleges and universities across the country, most of the students who would be displaced would be white—and one wonders if white students displaced by Asians would be demanding reinstitution of affirmative action—but this time to favor white students!

The push against affirmative action comes from people who think that no race should be advantaged or disadvantaged relative to another race. Unfortunately, the myth that “all [people] are born equal” is belied by the reality of inequality of wealth and income at birth, to say nothing of continued discrimination based on race or ethnicity. Underrepresented groups are underrepresented in higher education in the first place because disproportionate numbers of them were born poor—and without the means to obtain a college education, they are likely to stay poor.

RWU will continue to consider race among the many factors we use in admissions decisions, but we are particularly focused on finding creative ways of opening our doors more widely to low-income students. Consideration of race or ethnicity may be in peril by the current administration, but at present it is still legal to advantage the poor.

Transgender and the Military

Recently, President Trump announced—first in a series of tweets and subsequently in an executive order to the Department of Defense—that he intends to ban transgender individuals from serving in the military “in any capacity.” That action would reverse a policy instituted by the Obama administration in July, 2015, permitting transgender individuals to serve in the armed forces. President Trump has now reversed his own position, stated at last year’s GOP convention, that he would “do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ individuals.”

The speed with which society changed its position on gay rights to include, for example, same-sex marriage was enough to cause whiplash for individuals who had, in recent years, been pushing (successfully, in several states) for legislation that defined marriage as being restricted to the union of two members of opposite sex. So it may not be surprising that there are people who would very much like to revisit the recent extensions of rights to gays.

But herein lies the danger. A worst case scenario would be for gay rights to be held prisoner to the party in power. History provides a dramatic example: the repeated reversal of religious rights in Tudor England. To obtain a divorce, Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic church in the 1530s, in favor of Protestantism. When Henry’s 10-year-old son, Edward VI, became king, Catholicism was banned—but when Edward VI died, at the age of 16, his half-sister Mary assumed the throne, and England became Catholic once again—but only for five years. Upon Mary’s death, Elizabeth I assumed the throne, and, during her reign, Protestantism was reinstituted as England’s official religion. Thus, for over 70 years, the people of England were forced to endure repeated flip flops in the country’s official religion, at times facing charges of heresy for failing to conform to the religion of the day—and a heresy conviction could bring prison, torture, or even a death sentence.

There is certainly no imminent danger of anyone being burned at the stake in 21st-centry America—but there is the very real danger that transgender individuals, having been encouraged by the Obama administration’s willingness to allow them to join the military to “come out” without fear of rejection, now will face discrimination and exclusion once again.

And that outcome strikes me as unfair in the most fundamental way. Our system of jurisprudence is designed to ensure that newly passed laws are applied only prospectively. That is, almost without exception, one cannot be prosecuted for an act that he or she did prior to the passage of the law. But this 180-degree pivot by the Trump administration regarding transgender individuals in the military effectively does just that: having relied on the rules established by the Obama administration, these individuals are now being told that they are no longer able to serve in the military. At present, that means that no additional transgender individuals will be allowed to enlist, but Mr. Trump’s executive order is written in such a way that some transgender people now serving can be discharged, although what isn’t clear is whether that discharge would be honorable or dishonorable.

Being discharged for the “crime” of being transgender would be the equivalent of retroactive prosecution, something our country normally does not allow.

But the harm is not limited to the capacity to serve in the military. Rather, it is the declaration by the government of the United States that transgender individuals have restrictions on certain of the rights enjoyed by all other members of our society—and that declaration will encourage testing the limits to see what additional rights might be taken from them. For example, several states have reintroduced bills to restrict the use of public restrooms to the gender of one’s birth, an action clearly directed at humiliating and discriminating against transgender individuals. And with the Department of Justice’s amicus brief in a civil case involving a gay individual’s discrimination claim, in which the Department of Justice argues that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not apply to sexual orientation, but only to gender, the rollback of rights recently extended to the LGBTQ community is clearly under way.

As would be true of any community of 4,000 or more, Roger Williams University has some number of students who identify as LGBTQ. We also have a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program (ROTC), in which some of our students participate (and receive significant financial assistance with their college costs). Finally, we have declared (as have most other institutions of higher education) that we do not discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, gender, or sexual orientation. How, then, under the current set of circumstances, are we to reconcile the presence of ROTC on the campus with the military’s now being ordered to disallow transgender individuals the right to serve? How do we accept that transgender people will be denied the opportunity available to every other student to receive financial support from the ROTC program?

To all of the members of the Roger Williams University community, let me make my position clear: I am not willing to accept discriminatory practices at our university, and if that means having a campus discussion that could lead to the termination of our ROTC program, so be it.

A Statement on the Violence in Charlottesville

Under the guise of exercising their rights under the First Amendment, a collection of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, members of the alt-right, and anti-Semitics gathered in Charlottesville on Friday and, outfitted for violence, paraded through the campus of the University of Virginia, brandishing torches and shouting racist and homophobic slurs as they confronted counter-demonstrators. Regrettably but not surprisingly, violence ensued, resulting in three deaths and almost two dozen injuries serious enough to require hospitalization. One white supremacist drove his car into a group of counter-demonstrators, an act that Gen. H.R. McMaster, President Trump’s national security adviser, subsequently labeled ‘terrorism.’

I repudiate in the strongest possible terms the hate speech and violence we all witnessed on Friday in Charlottesville, and I reiterate my personal support for ALL members of the Roger Williams University community, representing a variety of races, ethnicities, national origins, sexual orientations, gender identities, religions, and socio-economic backgrounds.

As college and university campuses, including RWU, are preparing to reopen for the coming academic year, campus presidents need to find the right words to communicate to their students, faculty, and staff. How do we balance our inherent commitment to the First Amendment with the reality that there are provocateurs whose goal it is to inflame the passions of members of the campus community and, if at all possible, to incite violence?

I think it is imperative that we separate the exercise of the freedom of speech from the initiation or instigation of violence. Violence is NOT protected by the First Amendment, and neither is incitement to riot.

And it is equally important that university presidents speak to the messaging itself. Whenever challenged, institutions of higher education must go on record to reaffirm the principles that guide us and that form our core values. So let me be clear: Racism, anti-Semitism, and all expressions of intolerance and hate are in direct opposition to RWU’s commitment to equality and inclusion, and have no place on our campus.

Finally, I ask that you join with me in keeping the families and friends of those killed or injured in Charlottesville in our hearts and thoughts.

Donald J. Farish,

President

Is the Role of Higher Education to be Inclusive or Exclusive?

(Extended version of my essay in The Providence Journal, Aug. 10, 2017)

The United States is on a collision course with disaster. Unless we change our current model of higher education, our country will never have the educated workforce it needs to support and grow its economy.

A 2016 report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that, of the 11.6 million new jobs created since the beginning of the Great Recession, 8.3 million (73 percent) required a four-year degree — powerful evidence that we are continuing the transition from a manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy. Yet a 2017 report from the Lumina Foundation showed that only about 32 percent of American adults have a four-year or graduate degree — a percentage that has changed little in the past decade. In the absence of a sufficient supply of college graduates, how can American business and industry grow? And if American business and industry does not grow, how can the American economy expand?

Don’t assume that the law of supply and demand will take care of this problem. That’s not the appropriate model when it comes to higher education because, overwhelmingly, individual institutions of higher education are focused more on maintaining, and if possible enhancing, their own reputation than they are on producing more graduates. In other words, their obsession with quality (often equated with ranking) eclipses society’s need for quantity — a statement supported by findings from a just-released New America survey of 1,600 American adults (“Varying Degrees”).

This obsession manifests itself in two distinct ways, both of which hurt the American economy. First, almost all four-year colleges and universities seek to admit the very best high school graduates they are able to recruit — with “best” being those with the highest GPAs and test scores, ideally from high schools with reputations for being strong academically. Because the publications that rank colleges and universities use, as one criterion, the percentage of college freshmen at a given college who are in the top 10 percent, or 25 percent, of their high school graduating class, these are the students most in demand. But if the American economy needs 70 percent of its workers with a four-year degree, which are the colleges willing to take students from the bottom half of their high school class? The answer is that these students have few college options and, for the most part, those options are unattractive. Colleges prove their worth and enhance their reputations by being exclusive — not inclusive.

Second, the emphasis on “quality” creates a grading system that ensures some number of college students must fall short of an instructor’s expectations, and falling short in enough courses causes the student to leave without graduating. The four-year graduation rate of less selective colleges is often below 20 percent — just one in five receives the degree on time, and the six-year graduation rate is commonly below 40 percent.

How can this model be changed to meet today’s societal needs? Here are three answers:

  1. Colleges and universities must dramatically increase their graduation rates. It is unconscionable that there are institutions graduating less than 20 percent of the freshmen they admitted four years earlier. These low graduation rates are a national disgrace, and the American public should demand better. As a nation, we literally cannot afford to have half of each entering class of students failing to graduate within six years (“half” being the national average graduation rate across all higher education sectors). What other business or industry could survive if half of its input never made it out the door as marketable product?

Too many institutions of higher education continue to miss the point of their mandate. A college education should not be seen as the civilian equivalent of Army Ranger School, where a majority of would-be Rangers are expected to wash out. Colleges choose who they admit — and by choosing in this way, they establish what might be seen as a quasi-contractual relationship with their students to do everything in their power to help them achieve their educational aims. Instead, too many institutions still act more as judges than as advocates; more as inquisitors than mentors; more as auditors than as teachers. And when students fall short of expectations, the conclusion is that they are poor learners, not that the institution is doing a poor job of teaching.

The response to these criticisms is, of course, predictable. “Gasp! You would have us lower our standards of quality in order to give students outcomes they neither earned nor deserve!” To which I respond: Nonsense! We can provide far more guidance and assistance to students without in any way compromising the expectations we have of what and how they learn. We can enliven in-class and out-of-class instruction to make learning far more interesting. We can move away from counting the hours a student must spend in a classroom to earn three credits, and move towards a direct assessment of the learning outcomes we have for the course. These changes are all within our reach and ability, yet for the most part we ignore them — because there is not yet sufficient pressure and expectation for us to change the standard model.

Suppose the regional accreditors (or the federal government) set an outcome standard of, say, 75 percent graduation in four years of all full-time students (those taking 15 or more credits each semester). Institutions failing to meet that standard would be placed on probation by their accreditors or lose some portion of federal funding. Does anyone seriously believe that we would not immediately see far greater attention being paid to successful student learning? Why should it take the threat of penalties to motivate colleges and universities to do a better job of graduating their students?

  1. Lower income students must be given significantly greater opportunity and support. Institutions of higher learning do a respectable job with students from the top quarter of family income, many of whom have college-educated parents, and almost all of whom are the product of quite good K-12 school systems. About 77 percent of students in this income bracket will ultimately earn a four-year degree.

However, colleges and universities have had much less success with students from the bottom quarter of family income, only 9 percent of whom will earn a four-year degree. If the United States is to see a significant increase in the percentage of adults with a four-year degree, we must work to make students from the bottom quarter of family income more successful.

Creating greater access and better educational outcomes for low-income students is not an insurmountable problem; we’re just choosing not to address it.

Many of these students did not attend high quality K-12 schools; most will be first-generation college students; they may or may not receive moral support from their families; they are generally unfamiliar with how colleges operate, and often feel out-of-place trying to navigate an unfamiliar landscape. By providing them with educational “coaches” — individuals dedicated to helping them in every facet of their lives — a few institutions have seen dramatic increases in retention and graduation. This model should be the norm, not the exception.

And we have to stop punishing people just for being poor. Low-income families tend to live in areas where the K-12 school system is often terrible; where the neighborhood is often dangerous; where families routinely confront food and housing insecurity, and move frequently, often disrupting the children’s education. Then, when the children finish high school, too often their only educational option is a community college, where funding on a per-student basis is far lower than at state colleges and universities, to say nothing of most non-profit private institutions. And we wonder why low-income students are one-eighth as likely to earn a four-year degree as are high-income students, who overwhelmingly attend colleges and universities that are far better funded on a per-student basis?

Why does our society find it in any way acceptable to provide the most financial support for those who need it least (students from the top quarter of family incomes), and to provide the least financial support for those who need it most (students from the bottom quarter of family incomes)?

  1. A new educational model is needed for working adults who require additional skills, or who want to complete their undergraduate degree. There are literally millions of American adults who have more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year degree. Virtually all of them would be economically better off with a four-year degree, and surveys find that about 75 percent of them would very much like to have a four-year degree. But the opportunity to do so is just not available.

The traditional model for a college degree requires four years of full-time study, typically in residence. This model is all but useless for a working adult who cannot give up employment to attend college, and whose time is limited by job and family responsibilities. Not-for-profit higher education has been painfully slow to respond to this need, a fact that provided the opportunity for for-profit institutions to enter the market and develop what can most charitably be described as a “mixed” record.

America’s need for a far better-educated workforce cannot be met simply by enrolling more high school graduates. We must also develop new methodologies to serve working adults, who neither need nor want a “seat time” education (that is, one based on the input of how many hours a person spends in a lecture hall to earn a college credit). Rather, they need to earn credits based on the output of academic competencies achieved. This model is moving with glacial slowness in the world of traditional higher education; change has to happen far more quickly, in order that the educational needs of millions of adult Americans can be met, and in order that we can create the larger pool of college-educated workers that our economy so desperately needs.

Accomplishing even one of these three changes will be challenging. Achieving all three may seem impossible. Yet while there is a real sense of urgency on the part of both the American public and the American economy, it is not necessary that all of higher education responds overnight. It is enough that some institutions, public or private, decide that there are certain actions that they can take that will address these three changes. And they can do so while still protecting their ranking:

  • Programs for adults can be developed in such a way that they will not interfere with the current college ranking system, which is based on measures relating only to first-time, full-time freshmen.
  • Working to increase graduation rates will help an institution’s ranking, because graduation rate is an important criterion in the ranking process.
  • Creating access for low-income students, on the other hand, may affect an institution’s ranking (because these students generally score lower on standardized tests and on high school GPA), but these institutions will have to ask themselves whether they exist solely for the purpose of establishing a high ranking for themselves, or whether their more fundamental purpose is to meet the needs American society has of them.

As even a few institutions respond to one or more of these needs, they will demonstrate that so much of what we think of as being fundamental and ingrained in higher education is, in fact, a product of the model we are using — and that model can be changed. Indeed, it must be changed, if America’s economic strength is not to be undermined in the coming decades by an educationally ill-prepared workforce. Higher education needs to hold itself accountable in ensuring that this gloomy forecast does not actually occur. And the first step in being accountable is to adopt inclusivity — not exclusivity — as higher education’s watchword.

A Recommendation to Jeff Bezos to Award Transformative Philanthropic Gifts to Colleges

(My essay in Inside Higher Ed, July 2017)

On June 15, The New York Times published an interview with Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, in which he was asked about his philanthropic interests, now that his net worth exceeds an estimated $80 billion. His philanthropic giving to date has been modest by the standards of many other multibillionaires.

Bezos responded, “If you have any ideas, just reply to this tweet …”

Within a day, Bezos had received more than 18,000 replies. No doubt the flood of tweets will continue unabated for days to come. Yet it’s very difficult to compress a good idea into the 140-character limit of a tweet.

With that in mind, I offer my own suggestion.

Dear Mr. Bezos,

You indicated to The New York Times that, when it comes to philanthropy, you are interested in making investments that are “at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact.” I have a suggestion that I think would do just that. But first, let me set the table for you.

In 1992, Henry M. Rowan Jr., an industrialist living in southern New Jersey, did something literally unprecedented: he gave $100 million, virtually all of which was unrestricted, to a local public institution, Glassboro State College. He had no particular history with that institution, but it was the only four-year college near his business offices. It was, at the time, the largest gift ever given to a public institution — and Glassboro State College then had an endowment of less than $1 million. In recognition of this gift (and not, as some people have speculated, because it was a condition of the gift), Glassboro State College changed its name to Rowan University.

Rowan was rolling the dice with an enormous bet. He was betting that a gift of this size could be transformational for Glassboro State. He was a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and that institution was soliciting a major gift from him. But he decided that MIT was already so rich that even $100 million would do little to effect a transformation there, and he wanted his gift to have an impact.

Rowan’s gift was paid in installments over 10 years, and I had the good fortune to be hired as president of Rowan University in 1998 to move the university “to the next level” — a concept that was not specifically defined but was assumed to mean making the university better, stronger and more recognized.

The gift was intended to be an endowment, with some of the investment earnings available for spending every year. But the sheer size of the gift allowed us to leverage it in the market for purposes of borrowing funds to improve the campus. We built engineering, science and education buildings. We renovated many of the existing buildings and improved landscaping. We constructed a town house complex to increase student housing. We acquired 600 acres of land near the campus for future expansion and the construction of a technology park.

Over a 10-year period, working with the town of Glassboro, we constructed campus-related buildings (residence halls, a hotel, a bookstore and a parking garage) on city-owned land adjacent to the campus, and to benefit the town, we orchestrated a public-private partnership to ensure the new buildings would be taxable at normal rates. Most of them included shops and restaurants on the ground floors, as a way of attracting the local populace to the area.

The campus grew in size and reputation, and shortly before I left in 2011, we built the first new medical school in New Jersey in 40 years. The work continues under my successor, with an intention of growing the student body from 8,000 in 1998 to 25,000 by 2025. (It’s more than 17,000 today.)

Rowan died two years ago, but he lived long enough to see his legacy in full bloom. His gift was every bit as transformational as he had hoped. He was a tough businessman, but when he spoke of the university that bore his name, his eyes filled with tears, and on more than one occasion he told me, “That was the best money I ever spent.”

Some cynics speculated at the outset that the university would never receive another gift, since any gift would pale in comparison to Rowan’s gift. To the contrary, philanthropists reasoned that a university that could attract a gift of $100 million must certainly be worth their much smaller investments, and over the subsequent decade, we received more than a dozen gifts of $1 million or more, with one gift of $10 million. Success breeds success — and large philanthropic investments attract other philanthropic investments.

The Rowan story is gradually becoming better known. For instance, it was featured in a Malcolm Gladwell podcast last year as an example of how philanthropists should be investing in colleges where their gifts will have meaning and impact, as opposed merely to swelling the bank vaults of well-known institutions that are already fabulously wealthy.

So, Mr. Bezos, here is my suggestion for a philanthropic investment.

  • Transform 10 colleges or universities each year for 10 years by awarding them an unrestricted endowment gift of $100 million. That’s $1 billion annually for 10 years.
  • Any public or private four-year, nonprofit institution with an endowment of less than $100 million would be eligible to apply.
  • An anonymous panel of experts whom you select would review the applications each year and select the 10 that promise to be the most transformational, affect the largest number of students and have the greatest societal impact. The specific criteria for evaluation would be yours to state, and those criteria may well change over the 10-year history of the plan.
  • As a condition of the gift, each recipient institution would be obliged to prepare an annual report, for 10 years, documenting their success (or failure) in achieving the goals they stated in their initial proposal. Those reports would be public, so that everyone could see the ways in which the colleges and universities were being transformed by virtue of winning a Bezos grant.

Mr. Bezos, this proposal, if funded, will positively impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of students every year — forever. But more important, if something like this does not happen, our country will continue to see a major shortfall of college graduates relative to our economic needs, and that shortfall will occur largely among would-be first-generation students, many of whom are members of ethnic and racial minorities.

There are many worthy philanthropic investments that you might make. But the economic future of our country depends on doubling the percentage of American adults with a four-year degree. A study last year by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce showed than 73 percent of all jobs created since the Great Recession required at least a baccalaureate, and only 36 percent of adult Americans currently have that level of education. The current system of higher education will never get us to where we need to be, but philanthropists such as you can show us the way.

Respectfully,

Donald J. Farish, president
Roger Williams University

Education is Solution to Nation’s Most Serious Threat

(My letter to Rhode Island's congressional delegation)

Dear Senators Reed and Whitehouse, and Congressmen Langevin and Cicilline:

Along with 400 others, I had the pleasure of hearing you speak on a variety of national issues at the annual Congressional Breakfast, sponsored yesterday morning [May 8, 2017] by the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. Rhode Island is indeed fortunate to have four such committed and accessible individuals representing our state’s interests so ably in Washington.

Had there been opportunity for some Q & A, I would have raised my hand with a comment and question. People may disagree about the most serious threat facing our nation today — North Korea? Isis? climate change? cybersecurity? — but I would argue that our country’s most serious threat is damage to our nation’s long-term economic security.

And the solution to that threat can be reduced to a single word: education.

Consider:

  • A recent study from Georgetown University found that, of 11.6 million jobs created since the Great Recession, 11.5 million required some level of post-secondary education, and fully 8.4 million (73 percent) required a college degree.
  • At present, only about 45 percent of adult Americans have post-secondary education that includes a degree or high quality certificate — well short of what the job market currently demands.
  • Colleges and universities do an excellent job of educating relatively affluent Americans who had the good fortune to attend high quality K-12 schools — 77 percent of the children of Americans in the top quarter of family income can expect to earn a four-year degree.
  • The same is decidedly NOT the case for children from families in the bottom quarter of family income, among which only 9 percent earn a four-year degree.
  • This 8-to-1 ratio of success, as between the top quarter and the bottom quarter, has not changed in 40 years! More of what we have been doing will not produce anywhere near enough individuals with the level of education needed by today’s employers.
  • Historically, calls for greater levels of educational attainment have repeatedly been greeted with slow response times:
    • It took almost a century for all of the states to adopt free and mandatory public elementary and secondary education.
    • In 1893, a presidential commission recommended that all adult Americans should have eight years of elementary education and four years of secondary education. By 1940, only 50 percent of Americans had accomplished that goal.
  • There was one exception to this kind of protracted response: When the GI Bill was passed in 1943, and was followed by the Truman Commission report of 1946/1947, creating a dramatically increased expectation of, and possibility for, the attainment of a college degree, the percentage of Americans with a four-year degree quadrupled in just 25 years—and that period coincided with one of the most robust periods of economic growth in our nation’s history.

My point is that unless the federal government catalyzes the process of creating more college graduates, the reaction time of the higher education community in developing opportunity for many more Americans to receive far more education will be so slow as to be essentially useless. The rapidly changing needs and expectations of the job market will greatly outpace the ability of higher education to respond, resulting in an American economy that will quickly be overtaken by the economies of China and other countries and regions that are far more focused on expanding educational attainment than is the United States.

What do I mean by “catalyze?” Federal grants and loans to assist low-income individuals to obtain a college education began in 1965; the creation of the Pell Grants (initially, BEO Grants) occurred under a Republican president in 1972 — but almost from the beginning, the size of the grants did not keep pace with inflation, and today, while exceeding the price of tuition at most community colleges, the maximum Pell Grant is well short of the price of tuition at flagship public universities, let alone the price of tuition at private colleges.

And it is the other costs — room and board, transportation, books, and miscellaneous expenses — that are the true impediment for most low-income students, and the Pell Grants do not address those expenses.  State plans that offer “last dollar” tuition guarantees will assist middle-class Americans, who do not now qualify for financial aid, and will provide them much needed relief from the burden of student loans — but these plans will do little to create greater access for more students, and nothing to improve unacceptably low graduation rates.

The federal government must increase its investment in low-income students, by doubling the size of individual Pell Grants (to about $12,000 annually), if these students are to have any real opportunity to earn a college degree — and it is properly termed an investment, not an expense, because, beyond the general economic benefit of having a large workforce with the skills needed by the knowledge economy, over their working lifetimes, college graduates pay on average at least $200,000 more per individual in income taxes than do high school graduates. The federal government will make money by investing in the creation of more college graduates. Surely that argument should appeal to both Democrats and Republicans alike.

Higher education institutions must do their part. We must strive to be inclusive, not exclusive — we need to provide access to students in the bottom half of their graduating class, and then support them such that they are far more likely to graduate than they are to drop out. We must commit to a culture of anticipated success, not expected failure. We must focus on serving the public good, not protecting our ranking in U.S. News & World Report. And those commitments must be in place if we are to receive the benefits of increased government investment. (The government’s return on its investment, through the higher taxes paid by graduates, is directly proportional 18to the number of Pell recipients who actually graduate. I suggest limiting the availability of the enhanced Pell Grants to institutions that graduate at least half their entering class on time — either two years or four years, depending on whether we are referencing the associate’s degree or the baccalaureate.)

So my question, gentlemen, is: Can you — and will you — support the notion of a significant escalation in government support of higher education, in return for the commitment of the higher education community to do its part in creating pathways to success for a significantly larger number of students — including working adults, who need their own pathway, not the pathway built to serve teenagers? I stand ready to work with you, shoulder to shoulder, to rebuild the American economy by expanding post-secondary educational opportunities for far more Americans than are being served today. Rhode Island is the perfect site for a pilot study of this idea, and Roger Williams University, for one, will commit to being a partner. Thank you for your consideration.

Purdue, Kaplan and the Purpose of Higher Education

(My essay in The Hechinger Report, May 2017)

Mitch Daniels, the Purdue University president and the former Indiana governor, recently announced that Purdue plans to acquire seven for-profit schools and colleges from Kaplan University, along with more than 30,000 online students and some 3,000 current Kaplan employees. The new nonprofit university will have its own name but carry the Purdue label.

In response, the Purdue University Senate held a special session and passed a resolution condemning the deal, saying it posed a potential threat to Purdue’s academic quality. The resolution also noted that the faculty was never consulted prior to the announcement, something the Senate said violated the practice of shared governance and faculty control of the curriculum. The Senate also questioned how faculty governance and academic freedom would be assured at the newly created university, and it called for a rescission of the decision by Purdue to acquire Kaplan.

The blogosphere has been buzzing ever since. A story in Inside Higher Ed (May 5, 2017) generated more than 40 responses in just six hours, most of which were largely supportive of the Senate’s position, although some backed President Daniels.

At the heart of the dispute is an issue that has bedeviled education for centuries: the struggle for access by those seeking education, and the opposition by those who are educated and who seek to preserve their special status by restricting access to newcomers.

In the Middle Ages, literate monks worked to prevent the spread of literacy to peasants. Colonial-era colleges were almost exclusively limited to the landed gentry (male only, thank you). African Americans were obliged to create their own colleges, since very few of the existing colleges, including public colleges, permitted their enrollment. Jews were placed on a quota system in the first half of the 20th century by many of our most prestigious institutions. Some Ivy League presidents opposed the GI Bill, because it opened the doors of higher education to the working class. There are claims that, even today, students of Asian descent face a higher standard for admission at the University of California than do white students.

The students (current and prospective), the colleges and universities, and society at large all are parties of interest as regards who are, and are not, offered admission to college — and their views are not congruent.

The purpose of college from the student perspective is to assure access to, and graduation from, colleges and universities that will prepare them well for their post-graduate future.

The purpose of college from society’s perspective is to build a stronger society. A recent study at Georgetown University found that 73 percent of the jobs created since the beginning of the Great Recession required a four-year degree. Since only about 34 percent of adult Americans have a four-year degree, it is clearly in society’s interest to have more college graduates, and this means supporting the creation of educational pathways for students who are now largely excluded from higher education, including working adults and most low-income students. A better educated workforce, one with the skills and abilities needed by the knowledge economy, will accelerate the growth of our nation’s economy, and provide a higher standard of living for more Americans.

The purpose of college from the perspective of the individual institutions is to survive and prosper. At many colleges and universities, this purpose manifests as actions to protect and enhance their “quality,” a word we can interpret as meaning “reputation,” or even “ranking.” Purdue University is a fine institution, regularly ranking in the top 60 or so national universities, according to U.S. News & World Report. It has every reason to be proud of its academic reputation, and understandably wants to protect it. Purdue enrolls about 28,000 undergraduates, has a six-year graduation rate of 76 percent, and 43 percent of its freshmen are from the top 10 percent of their high school graduating class.

But Purdue is a public university, and surely that means putting the public’s interests ahead of its own. Our nation needs to double the current percentage of adult Americans with a four-year degree. Public universities are being called upon to scale up. Purdue President Daniels proposes to do just that, by putting Purdue in the big leagues of online instruction through the acquisition of Kaplan. He is doubling the size of Purdue’s footprint, without adding a single student to the 28,000 undergraduates now on the West Lafayette campus. As president, he has no interest in weakening the perceived value of a Purdue degree, so I take it as a given that he will be scrupulous in ensuring that the online students meet the same academic expectations as the students in residence. Many of these online students are working adults, who are only able to access higher education through an online option—and now they may have the possibility of earning a degree from Purdue!

The issue of how higher education can better serve society was made more immediate by the recent release of survey results showing that 58 percent of adult Americans believe that colleges and universities put their own interests ahead of the interests of students (Hechinger Report, May 11, 2017). We in higher education can ill afford further alienation of the public.

The controversy at Purdue will not be the last time that faculty at well-established universities face the question of whether to place the obvious needs of society ahead of concerns they may have about the possibility of damage to their institutions’ reputations. I very much hope that the Purdue University Senate will reconsider its objection to what President Daniels is proposing to do. Purdue has the opportunity of showing the country how a great public university can provide even greater service to society by dramatically increasing access to a Purdue education.

Rebuilding the American Economy

Part 6: Transforming the 20th-century university to meet the needs of 21st-century America

In this series of blog posts, we have examined the strengths and weaknesses of the American system of education — especially higher education — and its purpose from the perspective of the student, the individual campus and the nation. Today’s collection of colleges and universities represent the culmination of the largely uncoordinated growth of institutional, state and federal initiatives at various points in our country’s history, unfettered by any overarching national educational policy. The absence of a higher education policy is both a primary strength (it has created competition among colleges, and competition promotes quality) and a primary weakness (most colleges and universities overemphasize their own interests, and, as we have seen, those interests are not generally congruent with the broader interests of individual students or society at large).

As measured by the economic strength of the United States, we are obliged to conclude that this model has historically served our nation well—but, as other nations have dramatically increased their investments in higher education, it is far from assured that our higher education model is well suited to preserving our nation’s strong economy in the future.  Prior posts in this series have addressed this problem in detail.  Now it is time to consider the changes that are overdue, if we are to retain our country’s economic hegemony — to say nothing of the need to rebuild the socioeconomic ladder if ambitious and hard-working low-income students are to escape poverty.

The National Goal

As the United States continues its economic evolution from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge-based economy, the country requires a workforce with the level of education that meets the needs of today’s job market. Although not all futurists agree, prevailing wisdom is that between 60 percent and 70 percent of jobs in the future will require post-secondary education — that is, a high-quality certificate or an associate’s, bachelor’s or graduate degree. In 2008, President Obama set a goal of having 60 percent of American adults with post-secondary education by 2026, and the Lumina Foundation concurred. Regrettably, as a nation we are stuck at about 45 percent, and virtually no progress toward the 60 percent target occurred during the Obama era.

In short, the current model of post-secondary education has not proven responsive to meeting the changing educational needs of the country. A new model is needed — just as in 1893, when a presidential commission called for a national goal of universal high school graduation, and again following World War II, when the G.I. Bill opened the doors of higher education to those who had historically been denied access.

What changes are needed for at least 60 percent of American adults to acquire post-secondary education? I believe several things must happen simultaneously, since no single change will be adequate to meet the 60 percent target.

Setting Policy Priorities

  1. Society’s Interests Must Prevail

In Part 4, we considered the competing priorities of students, society and the institutions — and the unsatisfactory result when these conflict. Since increasing the supply of post-secondary graduates requires significant financial investment, and since neither students (and their families) nor the institutions have the financial capacity to change the status quo, we are obliged to turn to society (that is, state and federal sources) for funding. However, in order to secure funding, the interests of society must take priority over the interests of the individual student or institution.

By today’s standards, that proposition may sound dramatic, or even radical, but it is important to recognize the long history of governmental involvement in higher education, beginning with the establishment and funding of the first state institutions in 1790, and the initiation of federal funding with the passage of the Morrill Act of 1863. The GI Bill of 1943, the Truman Commission of 1946, the creation of the National Science Foundation (the source of many university research grants) in 1950 and the introduction of Pell Grants in 1965 all represented additional governmental investments in higher education, and each had the express purpose of strengthening the national economy by expanding educational opportunity at the bachelor’s and graduate levels.

In order to garner public support for increased state and federal spending on higher education, it will be important to characterize this funding as an investment and not as an expense. Given the facts, this argument should be easy to make. In his or her lifetime, the average college graduate pays approximately $200,000 more in income taxes than the average high school graduate — an amount far in excess of the current or future level of per-student governmental investment. Investing in higher education pays off for society. Increasing the amount of that investment will increase the amount of national “profit” (in the form of additional income taxes).

So, while it is true that a better educated workforce is:

  • more informed on public policy matters;
  • far less likely to rely on the social safety net;
  • healthier and less likely to be incarcerated;
  • more publicly spirited;
  • on purely economic grounds, a strong case can be made that larger, not smaller, state and federal investments in higher education are both necessary and desirable.

But it is not appropriate for society to dictate specific educational outcomes, such as by choosing and preferentially funding the majors and subjects from which students must select. Beyond the fact that any society needs artists, musicians, philosophers and journalists to provide balance to a nation strongly inclined to favor wealth accumulation over truth and beauty, the $200,000 in additional taxes paid by college graduates over their working lifetimes already accounts for the fact that some of these graduates are in the fields we just listed. Trying to entice (or direct) them to become computer scientists or engineers, where the financial payoff to society is greater, is both unnecessary and unworkable. A free society must surely include the freedom to pursue one’s passion — even if that passion is sometimes not highly rewarded financially.

  1. College for Everyone?

Some people who ardently support public transit do so not because they intend to use it. Rather, they hope that other people will use it, so that the roads are less crowded when they drive their cars. Similarly, some people argue that college shouldn’t be everyone’s goal.  After all, we need tradespeople as much as we ever have — but that should be the goal for other people’s children: My kids are going to college.

This is a difficult debate.  On the one hand, we value a society in which people are free to pursue their dreams, and if that means going to college, well, so be it. On the other hand, not everyone is well served by college, either because they lack the interest or ability to succeed, or because they are better served by a different career path.

But do young people of high school age really know what they want? What is in their long-term interests? Should they be asked — or required — to make a decision while still in high school that would forever determine the trajectory of their working lives?

The default position at which our nation seems to have arrived is that everyone should be educationally prepared for college so that their options are not foreclosed prematurely, and going to college to “find oneself,” to “find one’s passion” or just to postpone looking for a job immediately after high school is entirely acceptable.

The problem is, in an educational system that draws heavily from the public purse, it is both expensive and wasteful to allow — even encourage — young people to founder in college, as they attempt to find a purpose and a direction for their lives. That’s why many educators recommend a gap year between high school and college, or even advocate for a year or two of public service before college, to ensure that young people entering college do so with a clear purpose and commitment.

But advocating a gap year, or a year or two of public service, doesn’t resolve the underlying problem — that there are two irreconcilable perceptions regarding college access. Some people note with concern that our current model of higher education is wasteful and inefficient because it is too accessible to students who lack either the educational preparation or the personal commitment to succeed, and these critics use low graduation rates as proof of the wisdom of their perspective.

Others, however, point out that our current model discriminates against low-income students, students for whom English is a second language, and students of color, noting that all three groups are seriously underrepresented among college graduates. Far from limiting access to only the best prepared and committed students, they argue that the challenge is to expand access to more students from groups that have not historically succeeded in college.  Indeed, they point out, if this is not done, we have no arithmetical possibility of reaching the 60 percent target.

My own view is that the solution does not center as much on expanding or restricting access, but on creating a culture of success, where the expectation and goal is that the overwhelming majority of students persist and graduate (see Part 5 in this series). I’ll talk about how to achieve this outcome later in this blog post.

  1. Education vs Training

Members of the faculty may differ on many topics, but they typically hold one view in common: The role of college is to educate, not to train. By that, they mean college is a place where students don’t just learn factual information, although acquisition of such information certainly occurs. Rather, college is a place where students learn how to think, to communicate effectively, to assess the quality of the information they encounter, to prepare analyses and arguments, to extrapolate their understanding when faced with novel situations, to be nimble and adaptable, to work well with others, and so forth. These are the hallmarks of study in the liberal arts, and they are traits and abilities looked for and expected by employers. Much social growth and intellectual and emotional development takes place between the ages of 18 and 22, and spending those years at a residential college is generally of profound value to people as they begin their professional lives. They may have learned the fundamentals of accounting or engineering or architecture, but without the academic foundation of the liberal arts, they are not truly educated.

So for many faculty members, this comprehensive idea of education not only defines what college is intended to do, but also what a bachelor’s degree represents. Anything much different from what I have just described does not measure up to the “traditional” standard, and therefore is not equivalent. Consequently, new models of education are often viewed with suspicion and are rarely welcomed by the academy.

The problem is that this perspective conflates two quite different aspects of a traditional undergraduate degree taken in residence: information acquisition and intellectual understanding on the one hand, and social and emotional growth on the other. Ideally, both occur at colleges today. Both are needed for success in a career and in life. And four years seems to be about the right amount of time to spend.

But, surely, we should not expect that an educational model developed for recent high school graduates would meet the needs of working adults equally well. Yet, that is typically all we have to offer to working adults who decide to start (or complete) their bachelor’s degree. Rather than a one-size-fits-all educational model, suppose we were to design a model specifically for non-traditional students, such as working adults. How would it look?

  1. Expanding the College Market

There are 27 million Americans who started college but didn’t finish, but there are remarkably few avenues open to them to complete their studies because institutions of higher education are focused on the recent high school graduate — not the working adult without an undergraduate degree. We cannot reach the nation’s educational goals by focusing just on improving the K-12 pipeline. We must also find ways of educationally qualifying working adults.

One of the things we must recognize is that a traditional college experience — in residence, full-time, dutifully sitting in the classroom 15 or 20 hours a week — is not only a terrible design for working adults, but it is also unnecessary. Much of what happens to traditional-age students while they are enrolled in college has independently happened to people who did not attend (or who did not finish) college. What is missing in their education is more factual in nature and less developmental. They do not require the social and psychological nurturing of most teenagers or lessons in time management. They can instead focus on the acquisition and use of information.

Those more limited needs permit an educational design that is both simpler and faster. Using competency-based metrics, rather than seat time (see Part 3), courses can be face-to-face or on-line (or blended) to allow students to move at their own pace, yet still acquire the level of learning reached by traditional residential baccalaureate students. This model of adult education is inching its way forward ever so slowly, having been delayed by concerns from regional accreditors and the U. S. Department of Education that it may not be sufficiently rigorous. But it is now in place at a few accredited institutions. The number of participating institutions needs to expand dramatically, if we are to serve the huge number of individuals who both seek and need the opportunity to acquire a college education.

Yet we shouldn’t limit our thinking just to traditional degrees. Very often what working adults need is the acquisition, or enhancement, of specific skills and abilities, as a consequence of the ever-changing job market. Colleges and universities can very easily develop certificates or badges in defined areas — blocks of three courses, typically — that can stand alone or be stacked in such a way that they could eventually be converted into an undergraduate or graduate degree.

We can no longer think of a college education as a one-time vaccination against ignorance that lasts for a lifetime. In the rapidly changing world of 21st-century America, we will need occasional booster shots to keep our skills current for today’s marketplace. Traditional institutions of higher education will either step up to deliver these booster shots or stand by while non-traditional providers start taking over our industry.

  1. Face-to-face vs. online

There is a widespread belief that the answer to expanding college access is through the internet. Everything can be put online, and all would-be college students can acquire a degree at their own speed — for a lot less than the cost of traditional colleges.

There is no question that some students would thrive in such an environment, but most traditional-age students would not. Imagine this situation: Your 18-year-old son walks into your living room and says, “Mom and Dad, I’m going to my room to take my college degree. See you in four years.” You just know this isn’t going to end well — and it will probably end before lunch.

Two things: First, most teenagers need far more structure in their learning environment than can be provided through a series of online courses. Second, this model raises again the distinction between education and training: It is very difficult to simulate the social environment of a residential college and the constant interaction with others in an online world.

Alternatively, online is often far more preferable and effective for adult learners than is a residential learning environment. As I argued earlier in this post, the absence of educational models designed to meet the needs of adult learners is a huge handicap in attaining our national goal of 60 percent of American adults with a college degree. It would be highly ironic if we abandoned a residential, face-to-face model of education for traditional-age students in order to force them into an online world, when what we need to do is build that online world for the adult learners who now are unable to access the educational model for traditional-age students.

Repairing the Pipeline

At present, about 83 percent of high schoolers graduate, and 66 percent of those start college (public or private, two-year or four-year) the following academic year. However, in some states, less than 5 percent of community college students complete their studies in two years, and, nationally, less than half of the students in public universities graduate in four years. These numbers are grounds for outrage. One wonders why the tax- and tuition-paying public isn’t running around with their hair on fire. We will never meet our national educational goals with so many students failing to complete their degrees.

To be sure, many students are part-time because they need to have a job while in college, but nationally 38 percent of community college students attend full-time. How, then, to explain such low graduation rates? Some number of part-time students do eventually complete their studies, attesting to their tenacity. But a delayed graduation keeps them out of the college-educated job market for an extended time, resulting in a reduction in both their income, and the taxes they pay, over their working lifetimes. Successfully moving more students through the educational pipeline, and in a more timely manner, is critical for both the individual and the country.

How might we achieve that goal?

  • Increase financial support: Our national goal should be to ensure that all students have adequate financial resources to permit them to be full-time. This would require a significant increase in the Pell Grant program by:
    • Enhancing the individual awards and adjusting them yearly for inflation.
    • Increasing eligibility to include more families.
    • In calculating the size of individual awards, factoring in living costs, not just educational costs, to address the current need that students often have to work while in school.

But wouldn’t such a program be prohibitively expensive? I could be flip and say “Not in comparison to the budget of the Department of Defense, and surely strengthening our economy is at least as important to our nation’s future as creating a new generation of nuclear weapons.” But let me be more practical. Here are several suggestions:

  • Phase in the increase costs over several years.
  • To maintain their eligibility for Pell Grants, require students to maintain a 2.0 GPA and to complete the appropriate number of academic credits annually to keep them on pace for a timely graduation.
  • Require students to have some “skin in the game,” on the order of $5,000 for an associate’s degree or $10,000 for a bachelor’s degree, with federal student loans available for students without the necessary personal or family resources.
  • Eliminate the tax exemption on investment income earned by university endowments, and dedicate those funds to paying for an expansion of Pell Grants.
  • Rethink the institutional purpose and the role of faculty and staff: As I said in Parts 3 and 5 of this series of blog posts, institutions offer a mixed message to students regarding their level of commitment to student success.  Some campuses regularly exceed the anticipated graduation percentage, predicted on the basis of student quality at entrance (high school GPA and test scores), whereas other campuses regularly fall short. These institutional differences in outcome result from the presence or absence of both student assistance programs and positive faculty attitudes to the students in their courses. We know enough about student learning, about the academic and psychological needs of students, and about best educational practices to recognize that there is absolutely no reason why families should be so tolerant of sub-optimal graduation rates that now give pause to many students and families as they contemplate the wisdom, and cost, of attending college. The financial consequences to the student, the family and the nation of a failure to complete the degree are simply too great to be accepted as inevitable. We must:
    • Hold campuses accountable for achieving graduation rates that reflect the relative academic quality of the student body, or lose eligibility for federal funding.
    • Hold campuses accountable for providing ways in which students can receive the level of support, inside and outside the classroom, that enhances students’ academic success, including augmenting the staffs of the Counseling Center, the Advising Center, the Tutorial Center, and other similar offices.
    • Make widely available the best practices of campuses that have high rates of retention and graduation.
    • Require the acceptance of academic credits transferred from any accredited institution by the receiving institution. Too many transfer students are currently required to repeat coursework at their new institution that they have already successfully completed at their previous institution.
    • Encourage more four-year institutions to create their own two-year college to allow less well prepared students access to a developmental program designed to merge with the regularly admitted students in the junior year. Most four-year institutions are so concerned about preserving their academic reputation that they seek to limit access only to students who are indisputably ready for college—and that is a formula to preserve the status quo, not one that will expand access or create progress toward our national goal of 60 percent of Americans with post-secondary education. We cannot reach the 60 percent goal by focusing exclusively on students in the top 25 percent of their graduating class. As long as that goal is seen as someone else’s responsibility, we are effectively encouraging colleges to think only about what they want, rather than addressing what American society needs today.
    • Not accept the cynical response that increasing graduation rates can only be done by lowering academic standards.
  • Recapture those who have leaked from the pipeline: Regardless of how effective the efforts are to retain students until they graduate, a significant number will leave without having completed their studies, for a variety of reasons. Are they doomed to go through life with “some college,” but no degree, and to deal daily with the economic consequences of never having finished? Today, the answer to that question is effectively “yes.” But, as I have argued earlier in this post, that is only because traditional higher education has all but ignored them and their needs. New educational models, focused on the acquisition and assessment of competencies rather than the amassing of hours of seat time, and using online education rather than face-to-face instruction, can be effective in assisting these students in completing their degrees, and qualifying for the jobs and salaries available only to college graduates — with significant economic benefit to themselves and their families, and to the country as a whole.

 Summary

Our current model of higher education has been adapted and augmented since the Colonial era to meet the changing needs of the local and national economies, but its evolution is no longer keeping pace with the current rate of social change. Specifically, our model reveals itself to be completely inadequate to meet the needs of business and industry that increasingly require many more employees with post-secondary education. Unless we find a solution to this problem, we face the prospects of being overtaken by countries and regions with a stronger system of higher education, and, as a consequence, with economies that are growing faster than is our own.

Several things must change at the same time to address this need for a higher level of educational attainment for more Americans. We must:

  • Increase the educational skill level of high school graduates. Too many of them are not academically prepared to take college-level courses.
  • Focus on a far greater level of college success than we see at present. College should not be the equivalent of a weeding-out process where the weakest and least affluent are eliminated — and in huge numbers. We must rethink our system so that the large majority of students succeed — and do so in a timely fashion.
  • Find ways of recapturing those who prematurely leak out of the educational pipeline, for whatever reason, through the creation of “intake pipes” for working adults who want a college degree, but cannot access a model designed for full-time traditional-age students.
  • Think of education as something that happens periodically over a lifetime, rather than as a defined period of time that, for most individuals, ends with a bachelor’s degree. Colleges should develop certificates and badges, designed for specific populations to meet specific needs, and typically delivered online, to meet the ever-changing needs of working America.

We are facing a painful paradox: The employers of America are asking for many more college-educated employees, even as many colleges are struggling to fill their classrooms, owing to the continuing decline in the number of high school graduates. Yet there are literally millions of working adults seeking to start or complete their undergraduate degree, or other program, but who have no place to go. Do the traditional colleges and universities of America have the will to respond to meet this new and growing need by developing programs to serve working adults, or by accepting less qualified students (with the understanding that they would also be accepting the responsibility to support and graduate them)? Or will the traditional colleges cling to the current model, perhaps tinkering a bit around the edges, and watch each other die off?

Our tagline at Roger Williams University is “a private university serving the public good.” If we are to be true to that commitment, we have no choice but to be in the front row of the vanguard of American universities that dedicate themselves to expanding college access to working adults and to those high school graduates who today are too often excluded.