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.


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.