Rebuilding the American economy

Part 1: Optimists vs. pessimists

 

We have just weathered the most bitter and divisive presidential campaign in decades, featuring two fundamentally different views of the future of the American economy.

To Hillary Clinton, today’s economy predicted a bright future for the large majority of Americans. After an unusually brutal recession, unemployment rates had returned to near-normal levels, and family incomes had finally begun to rise. From Secretary Clinton’s perspective, more work needed to be done, but the country was basically on the right track.

Mr. Trump had a far more dystopian outlook. America’s best days were behind it, unless we somehow “made America great again” by pushing back against globalization, reinstating international trade barriers and recreating the well-paying blue-collar jobs that had allowed the remarkable growth of the middle class in the decades following the end of World War II. He ridiculed Secretary Clinton’s view that the country was on the right track and dwelled on the loss of manufacturing and mining jobs lost to outsourcing and unnecessary concerns regarding the environment, respectively.

In the end, Mr. Trump won the electoral college handily (even though he lost the popular vote), and he is now the president. There has been no shortage of explanations about why the polls — the great majority of which predicted that Secretary Clinton would win — were so spectacularly wrong.

It is fair to assume that many factors contributed to Mr. Trump’s victory. Even minor changes in one or two of these factors might have led to a different result. But the danger in such analyses is that we might miss — or at least greatly underestimate — the significance of one hugely important factor: the role that the perception of individual voters’ own economic success (or lack thereof) played in determining how they voted.

Mr. Trump won 26 of the 30 states with the lowest average family incomes. He won more than 2,600 counties that collectively generate 36 percent of the country’s economy. Secretary Clinton, on the other hand, won higher income states but fewer than 500 counties — and yet these counties collectively generate 64 percent of the nation’s economic activity.

An analyst from the Brookings Institution noted that “the Democratic base [was aligned] more to the more concentrated modern economy, but [with] a lot of votes and anger to be had in the rest of the country.”

In other words, the areas of the country (and the people in those areas) that had successfully transitioned to become the workplaces and workforce of today’s economy were prospering, and therefore were more likely to support the political status quo, whereas those most affected by the loss of 5 million manufacturing jobs in the past decade were struggling economically and therefore were more inclined to vote for a new direction for the country.

So James Carville’s famous dictum from the 1992 presidential campaign — “It’s the economy, stupid” — was true again this year.

Or is it quite that simple? Is the economy the lowest common denominator, or is there something that is even more fundamental? I submit that the economy is just a reflection of the true core. I think that the true core is the level of educational attainment of individuals in a particular community or region. If the counties of each state were ranked by average family income, the rank order would very closely correlate to the percentage of adults in each county with a four-year degree — that is, the more educated the population, the wealthier the county.

The earnings premium of a college degree relative to a high school diploma has long been recognized, so it should not be surprising that counties with many highly educated adults have higher family incomes than do those with relatively few college graduates. But emphasizing the link between economic prosperity and educational attainment is important for the most practical of reasons: It illuminates the easiest pathway forward for enhancing the economic well-being of families and of the country as a whole.

During the recent presidential campaign, both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton proposed dealing with income inequality primarily by increasing taxes on the very rich. Not for the first time, this proved to be a politically unpopular solution. Many people of average means do not wish to redistribute income in this way.  They do not blame the rich for being rich. Rather, they aspire to be rich (or at least richer) themselves. They believe in growing the economic pie, not in re-slicing a pie of constant size to make the slices more even.

Growing America’s economic pie means augmenting the average educational level of its people. As we continue to transform from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge-based economy, there will be an increasing premium on educational attainment. No amount of rejiggering the tax system can overcome that stark reality.

So the question is: How does our country ensure that we are once again growing the middle class? Is it by trying to recreate the well-paying blue collar jobs of the past? I believe the answer is: By ensuring that the richest country on earth becomes once again the world leader in the percentage of adults with college degrees or other post-secondary certifications. But how do we achieve that outcome?

In Part 2, we will analyze and evaluate the educational pipeline, from kindergarten to the college diploma.

Campus civility in the age of President Trump

How should college campuses respond to the emerging political agenda of President Trump and his supporters? What role should college presidents play in orchestrating these responses?

Almost all college campuses reflect the breadth of political opinion of the country as a whole, although not in the same proportion. It is fair to say that most college campuses are more liberal than their surrounding communities, but campuses are far from politically homogeneous. For that reason, presidents have to be careful in how they present their personal political views. To be sure, just as for the average citizen, presidents enjoy the right and privilege, under our Constitution, to speak their minds on any subject they wish. But with that freedom comes the responsibility (and the reality) to recognize that, however much they may wish to be speaking only for themselves, they nevertheless do so with the title “President” in front of their names, and their comments are therefore linked to the name of their campus.

At the same time, the present moment presents a wonderful opportunity for presidents both to encourage the discussion of vitally important issues with their students, and to do so in a manner that reflects the civility of discourse we both honor and endeavor to instill in our students while they are part of our campus communities.

Consider two recent events, and how presidents responded:

1) President Trump’s executive order that suspended the immigration of refugees from seven Muslim-majority nations, followed by the revocation of tens of thousands of visas, is currently (and not surprisingly) under challenge in federal courts in various parts of the country. At the moment, an appellate court has declined to reverse the temporary injunction placed on the executive order by a federal judge, and the terms of the executive order have themselves, for the time being, been suspended.

Reaction to the executive order by college presidents was immediate. Many of these responses were focused on reassuring the students and faculty who were the target of the executive order that they would be supported and protected by the campus to the best of the campus’s ability.

But quite a few presidential comments were directed at the executive order itself, and, by extension, at President Trump, who, of course, promulgated the order. Some presidents used particularly strong language: Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College in Minnesota, called the executive order “cowardly and cruel,” and he urged other college presidents to speak with “particular force” as they responded (Inside Higher Ed, Feb. 1, 2017).

In the interest of full disclosure, my response was in the first category: a statement of reassurance to the RWU campus that our commitment to religious freedom — the hallmark of our namesake, Roger Williams — would be unflagging. I deliberately chose not to characterize the executive order itself, for reasons I will explain momentarily.

2) Milo Yiannopoulos, an editor at Breitbart, the alt-right news network, has been engaged in a campus speaking tour. His remarks are so provocative that many of his appearances have been:

a. picketed (University of Minnesota, Feb. 17, 2016)

b. interrupted (DePaul University, May 24, 2016

c. prematurely ended (UCLA, May 31, 2016, because of a bomb threat

d. a cause of violence (University of Washington, Jan. 20, 2017, when a protester was shot by a Yiannopoulos supporter)

e. canceled (University of California, Berkeley, Feb. 1, 2017)

The cancellation at Berkeley is receiving national attention, in large measure because of the irony: Berkeley was the home of the free speech movement (1964) and is famously accepting of controversial speakers. Nicholas Dirks, the Berkeley chancellor, explained his decision to cancel the Yiannopoulos speech in a letter to The New York Times (Feb. 4, 2017), saying that he did so “reluctantly” and “only after determining that both the speaker’s and the public’s safety was highly endangered.” The problem, he said, was not with the estimated 1,500 peaceful protesters but with “more than 100 armed people in masks and dark uniforms who used paramilitary tactics” and “we could not plan for the unexpected.”

The impact of the cancellation at Berkeley continues to echo. Mr. Yiannopoulos, the Heritage Foundation and even President Trump promptly issued news releases or tweets condemning the cancellation — and President Trump threatened to end all federal funding at Berkeley (“U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”)

How should college presidents respond to speakers whose intent is to disrupt and provoke — especially when cancellation brings threats of governmental intervention?

I see the executive order on refugees and the canceled speech at Berkeley as events that, if managed well by college presidents, could be consequential in rebuilding community, both on campuses and nationally. But it won’t be easy.

Most college presidents see themselves as stewards of a sacred trust: upholding the traditional values of higher education, which include protecting every individual on campus from discrimination and arbitrary abrogation of rights and privileges. Understandably, threats to abridge rights, even from the nation’s president, in the absence of a clear and present showing of need, may be met with reactions ranging from skepticism to studied opposition to outright rejection. But we have to ask ourselves, emotions aside, what should college presidents be doing? Is there a best response?

Similarly, if faced with the possibilities of violence, how far should college presidents go in permitting highly controversial speakers from coming to their campus? Conversely, how far should they go in limiting the free expression of opinion, regardless of how objectionable it might be to some, a right enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution?

Finally, in responding to these issues, how do college presidents balance their personal feelings with the need to be seen as modeling best practices for their students?

I submit that this is a time for some people in this country to be moderate in their responses, and to endeavor to create bridges across the widening chasm between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans — and if college presidents cannot, or are unwilling, to play this role, I despair for the future of our country.

I see no advantage for college presidents to respond to initiatives such as President Trump’s executive order regarding refugees with language that has the result of raising the temperature around the issue at hand. Words like “cruel” and “cowardly” are not said with an eye toward promoting a civil conversation — and someone has to commit to civility if we are to avoid even greater polarization in our nation.

Surely, it was apparent to everyone that the issuance of President Trump’s executive order would be met with a series of challenges in our nation’s courts: the balance of powers among the legislative, administrative and judicial arms of government exists for precisely this purpose. Statements of concern, a recommitment to core values, expressions of support for those imperiled, all strike me as expected and appropriate. Creating forums on campuses for a discussion of the need (1) to determine if the current level of protection of our citizens from terrorist attacks is sufficient, and, if not (2) to recommend additional steps that might be considered, weighing the balance between the degree to which safety would be enhanced versus the degree to which particular actions might actually increase the level of danger — even if the conversation is happening, as in this case, only after the administration has taken action — would be a way of modeling best practices for our students, and allowing them to see the democratic process in action.

Conversely, there is a real danger should presidents, as leaders of their campuses, speak out in judgmental terms about the wisdom of an administrative action, because they will be seen as effectively endeavoring to end the debate before it begins, and, rather than creating the opportunity for students individually to listen to two sides of a matter and come to their own individual conclusions, be seen as deciding for the students and presenting the answer as a forgone conclusion.

College presidents must be seen as leading a discussion, not overseeing an indoctrination.

We should remember that, in the days following the issuance of the executive order, a slight plurality of the American public approved of the president’s action, even though a majority of campus presidents who took a position on the matter opposed President Trump’s executive order. Unilateral declarations by college presidents do very little to prompt a debate, let alone to change the minds of those on the other side of the matter.

Interestingly, at a national meeting of academics in January, a much-discussed topic was the question of how higher education should act to rebuild the public’s trust in the work of our sector (Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 27, 2017). One way to start might be to recognize that most of America has not ceded to academics the right to decide unilaterally on the wisdom or folly of particular political actions — and we should stop acting as if they have.

Moreover, the movement away from civil conversation has strengthened the hands of those who oppose the very notion of civility (The New York Times, p. 1, Feb. 3, 2017). The deliberately provocative words of alt-right spokesmen such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer are countered by the so-called “black bloc group” — the anarchists and anti-fascists who violently disrupted the scheduled Yiannopoulos speech at Berkeley. (This group has been active in the Bay Area for some time, and one wonders why the Berkeley chancellor was surprised by their appearance — “we could not plan for the unexpected.”) The alt-right movement provokes violent dissent, the black bloc anarchists are only too happy to provide violent dissent, the alt-right then claims that government intervention is required to protect free speech, the anarchists celebrate the breakdown of civil order, and universities become the unwitting foils in an attack on democratic principles.

If college campuses are being targeted as the battleground between extremists on the left and right, then college presidents have to find ways to reclaim the middle ground. This starts with conversations between the campus administration and campus political groups, to encourage the creation of forums for debate between representative voices from left and right. A true debate, where students are invited to witness a meaningful presentation of opposing views, is far more interesting (and useful) than one-sided diatribes where demagogues are deliberately being provocative, and encouraging demonstrations rather than attentive listening.

And to circle back to my primary thesis: It all begins with the college presidents deciding to use controversial issues as learning moments for their students — and not soapboxes from which they can proclaim their personal opinions.

My message to the RWU community about the executive order on immigration

This university is named for Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island who helped enshrine freedom of religion as a bedrock principle for this nation. So, in the wake of the president’s executive order on immigration, we feel a special responsibility to declare our full support for all Roger Williams University faculty, students and staff — regardless of their religious beliefs, national origin or immigration status.

I have already joined 600 college and university presidents in signing a letter supporting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has allowed 741,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children to remain in the country.

I have also joined 200 college and university presidents in signing a letter articulating our belief in “human decency, equal rights, freedom of expression and freedom from discrimination.”

Now, during this period of confusion and alarm, I am affirming our commitment to international and Muslim students, faculty and staff — as well as to their families.

Now, I am affirming our commitment to the privacy of student records, consistent with state and federal laws. That means RWU will not provide information on an individual’s religion, ethnicity or immigration status to anyone except as required by law.

Now, I am extending the full range of campus programs and services available at RWU to help support students, faculty and staff navigate this uncertain time.

In short, I am extending to them the welcome demanded by our namesake’s legacy.

I am making this statement today, following consultation with the RWU Faculty Senate on Wednesday.

In the next week or so, I will be holding another “Fireside Chat” to allow members of the campus community to talk about their concerns and views regarding the executive order and related matters. I am especially interested in hearing from international students but all are welcome to attend and discuss these issues. Information on the date, place and time will be forthcoming shortly.

In the meantime, faculty, staff and students may tap into the assistance and information available at: The RWU Intercultural Center (401) 254-3121; the Spiegel Center for Global and International Programs Abroad (401) 254-3899; and the Spiritual Life Program (401) 254-3433. Faculty and staff may also contact the Office of General Counsel at (401) 254-5379 regarding H-1B visas and related immigration issues.

Amid political polarization and anxiety, a message to the RWU community

I write today to welcome you back to campus for the spring semester of 2017, and I wish you every success in your work and studies. But, as you return, I also want to acknowledge the political polarization, tension and anxiety that exists in our country today, and ask you to recognize that universities have not just the opportunity but the responsibility to demonstrate to the broader society how differing points of view can be raised and discussed in a civil and respectful manner. Roger Williams University has a particular responsibility in this regard because of our relationship to Roger Williams, the man, for reasons that I will review later in this letter.

Our differences, of course are not just political. The people who make up the RWU community reflect the diversity of the broader American public — not proportionately, to be sure, but diversity is present on our campus in many ways: racial, ethnic, religious, national origin, economic, geographic, gender identification, sexual orientation, and so forth. And these are not mutually exclusive categories, since many individuals identify with more than one category. Many people within these categories — or entire categories — have also historically felt (or still feel) the burden of oppression or the sting of rejection by members of other groups, although the magnitude of that bias varies widely: laws against interracial marriage or homosexual practice existed in many jurisdictions until recently, whereas bias based on economic differences results more from unequal levels of access and buying power than because of statutory or case law.

Consider just a few of the issues now before us. For more than a year, America has seen widespread protests against the deaths of black men at the hands of police. Is there nothing we can do to address this situation? The U.S. Supreme Court has overturned state laws banning same-sex marriage — but will that position be reversed once a new justice is appointed? We have witnessed controversy over how best to deal with undocumented immigrants: should they be eligible for in-state tuition at public universities? Should they be granted driver’s licenses? Should they be offered a path to obtaining permanent status, or even citizenship — or should they be deported? And, in answering those questions, does it matter whether they arrived here as adults, or as young children?

These issues, and many others, may soon receive reconsideration, inasmuch as one party now controls the House, the Senate and the White House. What will reconsideration mean for America? What will it mean for the RWU community?

The quick answer is that we don’t know. But our choice, as a community, is between avoiding raising any topic that may be controversial, out of concern of offending someone, or — as I believe — exploring difficult subjects deliberately and publicly, in order to allow members of our community to hear both sides of an issue and to develop well-considered positions of their own. The caveat is that we must find ways to discuss and dispute our differences civilly and rationally.

I want to be clear that it is not my intention to work toward developing an RWU position on these topics.  Rather, I am advocating for a process — a call for an intentional dialogue wherein the sharp differences that divide us as a nation can be explored calmly and politely on our campus, rather than allowing ourselves to fall prey to forums designed for shouting the other side down.

The basis of my advocacy starts with our namesake, Roger Williams. Roger Williams was a man well ahead of his time. He not only opposed the idea of a state religion, but also welcomed those of any faith (or no faith) to settle in our state — an idea that was incorporated into the United States Constitution a century and a half later, yet an idea still not accepted in many countries to this day. Roger Williams opposed slavery, and he purchased, rather than appropriated, land from Native Americans. He learned the language of the local Native American tribes, and did not treat them as savages needing to be converted to Christianity, but as people with a culture worth admiring. He especially loved a good debate. I looked to Roger Williams to provide me moral guidance as I worked through my own position on various of today’s thorny issues.

One of RWU’s six goals from our Vision Project of 2015 is to create a campus that broadly reflects the diversity of our geographic region in all respects — and implicit in this goal is not just to tolerate, but to enhance and embrace this diversity, to work to ensure that members of every group enjoy the same rights and privileges as any other group, to celebrate our collective success as a community, and not to accept, let alone promote, uneven levels of power or prestige in one group relative to another. That requires not mere passive acquiescence, but proactive commitment to fairness and equity as desired outcomes.

So here are some steps I have taken recently:

Over the last few weeks, I, along with many other university presidents, have signed three letters that are being transmitted to the new president and members of Congress.

One letter supports the continuation of DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — a program started by the Obama administration in 2012 that, in return for registration, and subject to a number of provisions, provides minors who were brought to this country certain rights and privileges. We have six such students on our campus now, and there are more than 750,000 registrants nationally (not all of whom are in college). In signing the letter, I wanted our DACA students to know that, absent a legal requirement to do so, Roger Williams University will not provide information about them to federal authorities.

A second letter calls for a reaffirmation of “the core values of our democratic nation: human decency, equal rights, freedom of expression and freedom from discrimination.” By today’s standards, these values would seem noncontroversial — and yet there is already talk in Washington of an initiative to roll back certain recent and hard won victories of rights for members of the LGBTQ community. I thought it was very important that I reaffirm our institutional value of providing equal rights to members of all groups.

Finally, a third letter addresses the need to honor our international commitments to reducing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, and “to invest in the low carbon economy” in order to minimize rising sea levels that result from climate change. Our stated campus goal of promoting “sustainability” seemed to require me to sign this letter.

But it’s not enough merely to call attention in Washington to our principles. We also have the obligation to live out those principles on our own campus. For example, as we become more diverse, we confront the reality that not all of us have had the experience of living and working with individuals from historically underrepresented groups.  Therefore, to facilitate more comfortable classroom conversations, we are providing cultural competency workshops for our faculty and staff, beginning in late January, and continuing through the spring semester, to allow all the opportunity to attend. These workshops are in direct response to the student-led Justice in the Classroom movement on our campus, and we believe and hope that these and similar actions will create a better learning environment for all students.

There will be other forums as well, and I urge you to attend as many of them as your schedule permits. Our year-long “Quest for Refuge” series will continue through the spring semester. Both the School of Law and the Division of Student Life are sponsoring workshops that will be announced in due course. I plan to have more “Fireside Chats” on themes that emerge from conversations with students, faculty and staff. We will continue to engage with you on themes and topics that are current and relevant to our campus, our state, and our nation.

I look forward to hearing your views as we incorporate these matters into your educational experiences here at Roger.

Is Freshman Admission Only About Prestige?

The Background

In October 2014, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a $10 million investment to assist talented high school students of modest means gain access to “top” colleges and universities — “top” being defined as institutions with graduation rates consistently in excess of 70 percent. (There are now 270 institutions meeting that criterion.) Research had shown that less than half of high-achieving, low-income students applied to any “top” school, and this initiative was meant to address that problem.

In the press release, David Coleman, president of the College Board, said, “We cannot stand by while remarkable low-income students do not access the opportunities they have earned.” Mr. Bloomberg himself saw this as a worthy project because, as he said, “America is the world’s greatest meritocracy” and we need to make sure “that family income does not prevent talented and qualified students from applying to top colleges.” Both gentlemen were arguing that more high-achieving, low-income students needed to be encouraged to apply to “top” colleges. On the other hand, Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute, said, “Top universities and colleges…cannot fully succeed…if they don’t enroll American’s top talent from all socioeconomic backgrounds to maximize our nation’s potential.” He put colleges and universities on notice that it is their responsibility to admit more talented low-income students. That is, it’s not just that more such students should apply; “top” schools need to accept them.

The press release itself, however, went beyond just arguing for fairness in the admissions process to note the economic benefit to the individual student: “Students who attend these [top] schools have earnings that are about 25 percent higher than those who attend less selective colleges.” I’ll examine the validity of that argument shortly.

Over the succeeding two years, several actions were anticipated, including the development of a cohort of advisers who would be matched with students of low and moderate means to provide guidance; the creation of research funds to allow analysis of the impact of the initiative; and the funding and convening of a task force of college and university presidents who would, guided by the Aspen Institute, “develop actionable recommendations [to] enroll and graduate substantially more of these high-achieving, low- and moderate-income students.”

Today

On Dec. 13, 2016, Ithaka S+R (a nonprofit that provides advice and guidance to the academic community), in conjunction with the Aspen Institute, announced the creation of the American Talent Initiative, a program that is the outgrowth of the Bloomberg Philanthropies grant. At present, 30 “top” colleges and universities (21 private, nine public) have signed on; more are expected in the coming years, but only institutions with graduation rates above 70 percent will be eligible.

This press release was picked up nationally the same day by, among others, Inside Higher Ed and David Leonhardt in his column in The New York Times. Mr. Leonhardt was especially effusive in his praise of the initiative.

And why wouldn’t he be? What’s not to like about a push for greater economic inclusiveness in the makeup of the freshman classes of very good colleges and universities, many of which have historically enrolled only a handful of low-income students?

As it happens, there are quite a few problems, both practical and theoretical, about this initiative. Consider:

• The only good school is a “top” school. Think of the “top” schools, collectively, of representing the summit of Mount Everest. It is the highest mountain in the world! No other mountain is its equal! Only the very best mountaineers can ever expect to reach its summit, and therefore the cachet of having done so is particularly strong, because the number of successful climbers is so small. Many may aspire, but few will succeed. This is a terrible metaphor for higher education, and yet it’s how many people think about college choice: “I must climb Mount Everest, or live my life as a failure. I must be admitted to a ‘top’ school or have everyone see me as a loser.” Surely, what we most want for our children is the opportunity for them to receive a great education that prepares them for success in a career and in life, as opposed to valuing most not their college experience but the name of the school that appears on the diploma.

• Capacity problems. American Talent Initiative’s goal is to increase the numbers of high-achieving, low-income students entering “top” colleges by 50,000 over the next 10 years—and there are currently at least 12,500 such students graduating from high school each year. These are not small numbers. How will the “top” colleges and universities accommodate the influx? The nine public universities that now each enroll an average of more than 29,000 undergraduates can presumably grow (although one wonders if a campus of such enormous size is the best learning environment for high-achieving, low-income students), but the 21 private colleges and universities (averaging 4,500 undergraduates each) do not intend to grow their enrollment — meaning that the high-achieving, low-income students will displace some of the high-achieving, higher-income students (or legacy students) these schools are now enrolling. For these schools, it is a zero sum game. In order to create more winners, there have to be more losers — and the competition for slots will be even more intense, and the pressure on high school seniors to gain admission to “top” schools will be even more intense and traumatic that it is at present. Just what high school seniors need: more stress.

• Why not expand capacity? Surely, the solution is to create a better balance between supply and demand: there are presently too many very good students trying to gain access to a limited number of freshmen seats. Why aren’t we working harder to expand the number of “top” schools? If the criterion is a graduation rate of 70 percent, can’t we create incentives for schools to retain and graduate more of their students in order to reach the 70 percent level? At Roger Williams University, through specific programs and practices we have implemented over the past five years, we have raised our freshman-to-sophomore retention rate from 78 percent to 84 percent, and our four-year graduation rate from 58 percent to 64 percent (for the entering class of 2012). Since the 70 percent target is a measure of the six-year graduation rate, it is entirely possible that RWU’s entering class of 2012 will reach that figure by May of 2018. Moreover, since subsequent classes are being retained at even higher rates than the entering class of 2012, RWU is not far off demonstrating a consistent graduation rate above 70 percent.

Will that make RWU a “top” school? Well, yes, in the sense that we will qualify, according to the criterion used by the American Talent Initiative. But the more important point is that a substantial number of colleges and universities could reach this figure if they tried actively to do so — and more “top” schools would reduce the anxiety of high school seniors (and their parents) seeking admission only to a “top” college or university.

At the very least, efforts by schools to reach graduation rates of 70 percent or more would respond to those who think that American higher education currently consists of just two categories: a relative handful of truly exceptional universities, separated by a giant chasm from a huge number of institutions unworthy of a second look by any talented and ambitious student. We need to create more universities that are seen as exceptional; to return to an earlier metaphor, we need more mountains to accommodate those who aspire to climb them.

• “Top” is not properly defined. For purposes of this study, a “top” school is one that consistently has a graduation rate over 70 percent. But this relatively high graduation rate is less a function of the quality of the educational program than it is the result of a rigorous winnowing of the applicant pool. These are schools that are designated “more selective” or “most selective,” meaning that they accept less than 30 percent of their applicant pool (in some cases, less than 10 percent), and the students who are accepted are almost invariably exceptionally well qualified, as demonstrated by high school GPA, class rank and test scores. Any college or university with large numbers of such students can expect to see high retention and graduation rates. Indeed, if one knows the academic index (test scores and GPA) of the freshman class, it is relatively easy to predict that class’s graduation rate. In other words, a “top” school is a school with many “top” students, not necessarily the best academic program.

Surely a case can be made that a better definition of a “top” school is one that shows the greatest academic gains (using pre-tests and post-tests), or one that demonstrates the greatest transformative results, or one that shows, from surveys, the highest level of student satisfaction — all of which are more directly related to the quality of the educational experience than is the level of selectivity at the time of admission.

• Is there an economic payoff from graduating from a “top” school? As I mentioned earlier, one argument for creating greater access to the top schools for high-achieving, low-income students is that they will have an economic benefit — perhaps as much as 25 percent greater lifetime earnings, as compared to students who graduated from “lesser” schools. Those earnings data come from surveys of graduates from many different schools, and they are intended to identify the schools with the greatest ROI — return on investment, meaning earnings relative to actual cost of their college degree.

The problem is that, once again, one of attributing results — in this case, income — to the school itself rather than to the relative success of the individual graduates. Might we reasonably assume that some number of students currently attending “top” schools are the sons and daughters of very affluent parents? Might a higher proportion of the graduates of these schools be brought into the family business, or be encouraged to attend graduate and professional schools, or be set up for success in other ways? There is no factual proof that high-achieving, low-income students themselves will benefit financially from attending “top” schools, only that their prospective classmates have historically done quite well financially after graduation.

• But are there any risks for high-achieving, low-income students at “top” colleges and universities? Actually, there are. Many students are painfully aware of whether or not they “fit in.” Are their classmates like them? Do they share a common philosophy and view of life? Is the college likely to be a “second home”? Some low-income students, even if academically high-achieving, do not thrive on campuses where everyone is as bright as they are — and where the other students are far more affluent, with more expensive clothes, cars and tastes. Increasing the numbers of high-achieving, low-income students at “top” schools may not be the panacea it is touted as being.

So what should high-achieving, low-income students do? Any prospective student should certainly consider schools for which he or she is academically qualified; choosing an institution where one is well matched intellectually with one’s classmates is important to consider. But ultimately students should select a school based on their sense of how well they will fit in, whether they believe they will be happy and enjoy their college years, as opposed to forcing themselves to be something they are not, in the belief that the prestige of the college is the only criterion that matters. People are ultimately the happiest when they buy shoes that fit and are comfortable, not when they force their feet into an attractive shoe that is the wrong size and hurts their feet. Perhaps it is wrong to compare buying shoes to selecting a college, but fit matters a lot in both instances in terms of ultimate satisfaction and quality of life.

And “fit” is the paramount issue, because the consequences of choosing the “wrong” school are profound: Nationally, only 67 percent of students return for their sophomore year to the college where they started as freshmen, and within six years of when they started as freshmen, only about half of all students graduate from the campus at which they began their studies. A student’s first priority should be select a school where they are most likely to graduate; a prestigious name on the diploma should be a secondary consideration.

The Specific Threats Now Facing Higher Education

My essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 15, 2016

Three questions: What does Donald J. Trump’s election portend for higher education? How should we respond to ill-conceived, threatening, or dangerous initiatives from Washington? Is higher education somehow complicit in President-elect Trump’s victory?

He did not focus on higher education during the presidential campaign, beyond an occasional bombshell, but with the Republicans retaining control of both houses of Congress, many of their initiatives will now receive support from the new president.

Some proposals will spring from basic Republican values — reducing federal power and influence; shrinking the government; spending much less (except on defense), coupled with tax cuts; reliance on the free market. Some proposals will result from President Obama’s past actions, especially executive actions. Still others represent spillover into the world of higher education from deeply held concerns in other realms.

Here’s a quick list of things we should not be surprised to see.

What are the threats?

  • Pressure on colleges to reduce their costs or risk having their endowments taxed.
  • Greater emphasis on career education, at the expense of study in the liberal arts.
  • Re-enfranchisement of for-profit institutions.
  • Additional pressure on regional accreditors, and a push for even more educational credentialing by corporate America rather than by traditional colleges and universities.
  • A reduction of federal support for higher education, including the budgets of the National Science Foundation and the Pell Grant program, and greater reliance on student loans through private banks.
  • Institutional risk-sharing, if a sizable percentage of students default on their loans.
  • Raising the bar for unionization.
  • A weakening of Title IX, possibly including the elimination of the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, or perhaps the department itself.
  • A rollback of pending changes in overtime eligibility.
  • Significantly fewer new international students.
  • Direct threats to the status of undocumented students.
  • As a result of one or more Supreme Court appointments, negative changes affecting the rights of members of the LGBTQ community and women.
  • Defunding of climate-change research, weakening of environmental regulations, and expanding the use of fossil fuels.

What should we do in response?

Those things will surely not all come to pass, but it would be dangerous to assume that our academic lives will continue as before once Trump is sworn into office. What the higher-education community does in response will depend on the specifics of any proposal. But with a large number of academic associations having their annual meetings in January through April, this would be a good time for us to consider how we might present a united front on actions that we perceive to be a direct threat to our values, our students, and our historic role in supporting the American economy and way of life.

Has academe been complicit in the situation we face?

Sadly, I think the answer is yes. Ernest L. Boyer warned us more than 20 years ago that higher education had lost a key and historic value: the idea that we exist primarily to serve the public good. This was a universally held position at the beginning of the 20th century, even though those then going to college were primarily young, white, relatively affluent males. Ironically, as higher education became accessible to many more people in the years following World War II, it also gradually lost its spoken commitment to serve the public good. We started representing our worth by using metrics such as research dollars and publications, endowment size, exclusivity in admissions, and national rankings.

This would be a good time for us to consider how we might present a united front on actions that we perceive to be a direct threat to our values.

Underlying the 2016 presidential election was a deep divide between those who were succeeding (or at least who saw a pathway to success) and those who felt disenfranchised and abandoned by a society and a government that were not paying enough attention to their needs. The disenfranchised on the left backed Bernie Sanders and lost; the disenfranchised on the right backed Donald Trump and won. The responsibility of college presidents now must be to articulate higher education’s role in creating agency for many of those who feel disenfranchised.My campus has promoted affordability by freezing tuition for the past five years and increasing financial aid 30 percent; created educational programs for such nontraditional students as prisoners on work-release, teenagers entering the juvenile justice system, and inner-city high schoolers; provided training for corporate employees; and instituted work-force-development programs for underemployed workers.

It’s time for college presidents to make a collective pledge to America to stand for social justice and the creation of opportunities for those whom higher education has traditionally excluded. It’s time we recommitted to having as our primary mission “to serve the public good.”

Donald J. Farish is president of Roger Williams University.

A message to students about the presidential election

Nov. 9, 2016

Dear Students:

Last night, we witnessed American democracy in action: once again, we saw a peaceful transfer of power and the responsibility for leading our nation take place through the ballot box, and not by a violent overthrow of the government as continues to happen in many nations around the globe.

Feelings ran high regarding this election insofar as the candidates for president from the two major parties held very different views for the future of our nation. It is understandable that some people are jubilant today, while others may feel despondent. But it is imperative that we continue to be respectful both of the views of others and of the democratic process itself. We are guaranteed the right of participation in the process, not the right of the outcome we had hoped to see.

Any transition of a presidential administration brings with it a period of uncertainty—how will things change? Who or what will be most affected by the change? When will the change come? But it is important to stress that the values we have worked so hard to create and exemplify at Roger Williams University will not change. We will continue to expand our commitment to reflect the diversity of the state and region in the population of faculty, staff, and students on our campus. We will continue to focus on social justice. We will continue to be respectful of those with opinions and perspectives different from our own, even as we seek to learn from them, and to test our own values and beliefs as a necessary part of being a member of the learning community we call Roger Williams University.

We should all congratulate President-elect Donald Trump, even as we extend our thanks to Secretary Hillary Clinton for a hard-fought campaign—and we should commit to doing so in a respectful and constructive manner.

Donald J. Farish
President

Higher Education and Presidential Campaigns: Incompatible Bedfellows? (Part 3)

Is the purpose of college to get a good job or to have a great life?

In the first two parts of this series, I addressed some of the ideas regarding higher education that are being promoted by various candidates for president of the United States. In Part 1, I examined the wisdom and folly of eliminating tuition at public colleges and universities. In Part 2, I raised the inconvenient question of what problem the solution of free tuition is intended to solve – and what unintended consequences might result from such a policy. Now, in Part 3, I want to consider yet another factor that explains why there is such divergence of opinions regarding higher education on the part of our presidential candidates.

Higher Ed and Presidential Campaigns: Incompatible Bedfellows? (Part 2)

Before we choose a solution, let’s identify the problem

In my last post, I considered at some length the pros and cons of tuition-free public higher education, as advocated by some candidates now campaigning to be the next president of our country. After all, the reasoning goes, free tuition has been a long-standing policy in the K-12 sector; why not higher education? Different candidates vary with respect to how generous they are prepared to be, with one advocating a means test and at least a token investment by the students and their families, whereas another wants simply to do away with tuition at public colleges for everyone.

Unfortunately, the candidates are not discussing what particular problem their policy is intended to solve. Surely, in order to be effective, solutions have to derive from a collective agreement on, and understanding of, what problem the solution is intended to remedy – and our presidential candidates appear to have skipped this step.

The presidential election is almost a year away, so we still have time to think more about the problem we want to address before we fall in love with a particular solution.

Higher Ed and Presidential Campaigns: Incompatible Bedfellows? (Part 1)

Let’s examine the merits of the prevailing sound bites on colleges and universities

I have worked as a higher education instructor, researcher and administrator for more than four decades. Over that span, I’ve seen many presidential campaigns, and in almost every case, higher education has not been a plank in the platform of either of the major parties. Those of us in the groves of academe may have been ignored by presidential candidates in the past, but at least we knew that we would not be troubled by them.

Ah, for the good old days!

This year, higher education seems to be a part of every candidate’s agenda. (See, for example, “Punch Lines Versus Polish on Iowa Trail,” The New York Times, Jan. 1, 2016.) The Democratic candidates are focused on making college far more affordable – even tuition-free in the mind of at least one candidate. The Republican candidates are focused on affordability as well, but with much greater emphasis on the need for institutions to reduce their prices and/or the need for Washington to reduce federal financial aid – since some argue that it is the easy availability of federal grants and subsidized loans that permitted colleges to raise their prices so much in the first place (although there are few studies that support that contention, and many that refute it). Finally, at least one candidate is focused on “practical” education (“we need more welders and less [sic] philosophers,” “In GOP Debate, Rubio Again Criticizes Philosophy,” Inside Higher Ed, Nov. 11, 2015).

As the political primaries take place, with the inevitable coalescing behind a single candidate in each major party, it will be interesting to see how these various ideas play out: How will each of them be received by the American public, and which one will emerge as the most important?