Can Higher Education Solve America’s Economic Crisis?

Part 6: What We Need to Do - Working Backward from Desired Outcomes

So let’s take stock of where we stand. About 32 percent of the American adult population (36 percent of the workforce) has at least a bachelor’s degree, and that percentage has been increasing steadily since 1960, growing by about 0.5 percent per year. But according to Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce [1], our economy needs more than 70 percent of the workforce to be educated at the bachelor’s degree or greater. At the current rate of growth, it will take us more than 70 years to hit that target. That is, we’ll be just where we need to be by about 2090 — much too late to be of any use.

We are dealing with a set of paradoxes, and a quandary. It is a paradox that never in the history of our nation have we enjoyed such a high level of educational attainment, and yet never before has our level of educational attainment been so far below what we need it to be. Similarly, we have never before seen such a tight and powerful connection between having a college degree and individual economic success — and yet, in proportion to the size of our stagnant median family income, never has the cost of access to institutions of higher education been greater.

Our system of higher education works well for those whose families are themselves college educated, but it is not easily accessed by those who are prospective first-generation college students. Finally, we do a far better job of providing a college education to traditional-age students, particularly if they are full-time and academically well-prepared, than we do to part-time, academically weak students (especially if they require “remediation”) — and we generally do a terrible job at creating access to a college education for working adults.

The result of this chronic bifurcation of outcomes is an America that is increasingly divided between those who, from an economic perspective, are thriving, and those who are struggling, or even failing. This growing economic divide polarizes us in other ways as well: in terms of health and quality of life; in terms of reliance on (or independence from) various parts of the social safety net; and in terms of our politics and world view. [2]

The quandary is: How do we resolve all these paradoxes that continue to thwart not only our efforts to strengthen the economy but also our desire for a more just and equitable society?

It’s not for lack of vision or intent. Most states now have higher education attainment goals that anticipate that between 55 and 65 percent of their adult population will have a degree or high-value certificate, to be realized by the middle of the next decade. But few states have developed actual plans to achieve these goals.

In the meantime, too many young people with too little education create a drag on economic growth. [3] This point was reinforced by a recent comprehensive federal survey of high school graduates revealing that of the 28 percent who had not enrolled in any post-secondary program, more than four in 10 earned less than $10,000 in 2015. [4]

What must happen to get us from where we are today to where we need to be?

As is true for infrastructure in general, the infrastructure supporting education in this country functions to maintain the status quo — and this is a critical point. If there is a desire is to change the status quo in almost anything — certainly including educational attainment — then it necessarily follows that the first step must be to change the infrastructure. This seems obvious, but we continue to believe that by making a few tweaks in whatever represents the current infrastructure, we will somehow create a dramatically different outcome.

Our best approach, therefore, is to identify the outcomes we wish and then work backward to create the infrastructure to achieve those outcomes. [5]

In building a new higher education infrastructure, our primary concern should be to eliminate the obstacles that make college graduation such a challenge for low-income and/or students from underrepresented groups at present. Relatively affluent and academically strong white students who attend college on a full-time basis graduate at the rate of 74 percent; [6] the target for minority and/or low-income students should be no less. However, at present differences in educational outcomes by category are common and will not be easy challenges to overcome. For example, the graduation rate of students receiving Pell Grants (yearly household incomes less than $50,000) is currently 7 percent below non-Pell students. [7]

Programmatically, we must identify action steps that would increase both the participation and the graduation rates of currently underrepresented students. The good news is that there are many opportunities for improvement. For example, nationally, only 67 percent of freshman students return for their sophomore year. [8] It is unacceptable for higher education — so vital a component of our society — to lose one-third of its numbers every single year.

Here are a few things that could be done to improve this statistic:

  • Assign all incoming students in groups of no more than 20 to educational mentoring teams consisting of a faculty member, a member of the student support staff, and one or two upperclassmen. The specified goal: supporting and mentoring each member of the cohort by connecting them to the college community (so they begin thinking of themselves as belonging to the college “family”) and helping them overcome any emotional and psychological challenges they may have relative to moving from high school to college, generally without their family support system conveniently in place. It is in no one’s interest to have students fail at the outset because we choose to withhold the support and encouragement they needed to be successful during their critical first semester.
  • Some students would benefit from a trial run at college. Colleges should create an option for incoming freshmen to participate in a six-week on-campus summer program, where they would acclimate to student life before their freshman year actually begins, during which time they could also earn six credits of coursework and get a head start on their college career. For good or ill, many students are traumatized by the notion of being away from home and attending college. The point shouldn’t be to make them feel inadequate, but to support them as they are take a very big first step toward independent adulthood.
  • Students are normally assigned a faculty adviser at or near the beginning of their freshman year, but “advising” is second only to parking as a source of student complaints. Faculty generally do a fine job of assisting students with course selection, especially in the major. But at the very beginning of their college careers, what students most need is someone in whom they can confide, in whom they trust, who they feel has their interests very much at heart. And not all faculty have the time or the training to play that role, especially for first-year students who may not yet have selected a major. Instead, we need to think about augmenting course advising with a different type of advising, wherein trained members of the staff take on a distinct  mentorship responsibility for freshman students in particular. [9] We should think of these individuals more as guides than traditional advisers, augmenting and not replacing the work of faculty advisers. These compassionate and caring people would provide guidance and assistance to first-year students who too often see a speed bump as the equivalent of the Andes: impossibly challenging, and a reason to turn and flee.
  • We have to think about the cost of attending college as inclusive of more than just tuition and fees. Food insecurity is a big issue for a significant number of students [10], and child care costs can be prohibitive for single mothers trying to obtain a college education [11]. Expanding the scope and size of Pell Grants would be an obvious first step. The SEEK program at the City University of New York has been around for 50 years and has helped more than 400,000 students dramatically improve their educational outcomes for a cost of less than $3,000 per year per student. [12] The Career Pathways Initiative, using federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families funds, has shown for a decade how Arkansas has achieved far better educational outcomes. [13] Or try something truly radical: Pay students to be students, in recognition of the fact that being a full-time student is, in effect, their job. [14] They are more likely to persist if they are being paid.
  • Finally, we need to be mindful that students need to see people who look like them, who can be role models with whom they can feel an affinity. That’s why the faculty and staff need to be as diverse as the student body, such that a young Latina may reasonably expect to see an older version of herself at the front of the classroom, or as her adviser. And that’s why a trans student, or a bisexual student, should never wonder if he or she is somehow unique on the campus, but instead is invited to become a part of a supportive system for students, staff and faculty of like orientation.

Programs like these exist now at various universities and colleges, generally in bits and pieces, but they haven’t yet become commonplace on most campuses. Partly it’s a question of expense, but there is a strong underlying sentiment at many schools that higher education is all about self-reliance, and that too much “hand-holding” somehow makes ignoble the process of becoming a college graduate.

To which I say: Baloney!

The fact is that retention and graduation rates at far too many colleges and universities continue to be abysmal, and there is no indication that minor adjustments in the system here and there will change the outcomes in any significant way. Our objective should be to retain and graduate every student we admit, and while I will quickly acknowledge that to be an impossibly high standard, we shouldn’t accept as inevitable that a significant number of students must fail to demonstrate that the education of those who survive means something.

We know how to do better; we simply need to resolve to implement the strategies and practices that will make us better.

Adult Learners

“Adult learners” are defined as those 25 years and older who have not been continuously enrolled in higher education. As I noted previously, 32 percent of adult Americans have either a bachelor’s degree (20.4 percent) or a graduate or professional degree (11.6 percent). But almost as many adult Americans have some college, including an associate’s degree (9 percent), a high-value certificate (4.9 percent) or post-high school credits but no degree or certificate (16.2 percent).

If the “some college” population of adults could be transformed into graduates at the bachelor’s level, we would very quickly almost double our current numbers of college graduates. For various reasons, that’s not a practical goal. But the point is the pool of such people is huge, and even limited success would be transformational for the American economy.

Higher education institutions were initially created to serve newly minted high school graduates who attended college on a full-time basis, often lived in residence and graduated by the age of 22 or so after accumulating at least 120 credits, mostly earned on a “seat time” basis. (To this day, the coin of the educational realm is the Carnegie unit, defined as 15 hours of contact time, generally in a classroom. A typical three-unit course therefore requires 45 hours of contact time — three hours per week for a 15-week semester.)

Even today, most colleges or universities are ill-designed to serve adult learners, who rarely have the option of being a full-time student, for whom work and/or family obligations preclude their being in residence, and for whom 45 hours of in-class seat time to earn three credits is a luxury few can afford.

New models of education, focused on the demonstrated acquisition of specified skills and capabilities (so-called “competency-based learning”), aided by the use of technology and individualized for each student, show the promise of moving adult learners far more quickly along the educational continuum than is true for the usual “seat time” undergraduate. [15] The federal Department of Education has been slow to endorse these models, in large measure because of legitimate concerns that they may open the door to fraud (claims of learning unsubstantiated by any real demonstration of learning, all while relying on Pell grants and subsidized student loans). However, the Department of Education has begun approving a few models, and, should these models prove successful, they will undoubtedly become far more widespread.

The question is: How many current colleges and universities will see the need or take the opportunity to adopt them, since they present a very different educational methodology that some current faculty, staff and administrators may well find threatening to their sense of what a college education should represent? It will be interesting to see if campus traditions trump national economic needs.

For-profit institutions will have no such compunctions, but it would be a tragic mistake for traditional higher education to leave adult learners to the tender mercies of the for-profits.

In summary, it is not at all difficult to imagine a different infrastructure — manifesting a different philosophy of what undergraduate education should represent — being constructed to support much greater inclusion and success for traditional-age students. We already know how to do this. We lack only the will to implement the support programs.

Similarly, traditional higher education has all but ignored adult learners. The doorways of opportunity, such as they are, for adult learners would require the skills of an experienced contortionist to move through, yet we clearly have the capability of constructing learning environments designed to meet their specific needs.

But we choose not to do so.

Let’s hope that the health of the American economy matters enough to motivate higher education institutions to accept the twin challenges of increasing retention and graduation rates of a demographically shifting population of traditional-age students — and to create effective learning environments for adult learners, with the ultimate objective of doubling the percentage of adult Americans with at least a four-year degree.

Next time: We have the skill, but do we have the will?

[1] “America’s Divided Recovery: College Haves and Have-Nots,” 2016

[2] “Three things to consider about increasing access to higher education,” Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 17, 2017. (The author, Dan Greenstein, was until recently the director of postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)

[3] “Millions of young adults have entered the workforce with no more than a high school diploma,” Brookings, Jan. 31, 2018

[4] “Study: 72 percent of ninth graders have some postsecondary education within seven years,” Inside Higher Ed, Feb. 2, 2018

[5] An example of the kinds of outcomes we should be seeking to implement are found in a recent comprehensive report from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences (“The Future of Undergraduate Education,” November, 2017) that focuses on three major priorities: strengthening the student experience; increasing completion rates and reducing inequities; and controlling costs and increasing affordability. Achieving those priorities can only be achieved through substantial changes to the higher education infrastructure.

[6] Website of the National Center for Education Statistics.

[7] “A look at Pell Grant recipients’ graduation rates,” Brookings, Oct. 25, 2017

[8] “What college freshman retention rates miss when measuring student success,” University Business, Dec. 21, 2017

[9] “Can Colleges Engineer Relationships?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan. 19, 2018

[10] “It’s Hard to Study if You’re Hungry,” The New York Times, Jan. 14, 2018. Governors Brown (CA) and Cuomo (NY) have both addressed this issue in their most recent budget proposals.

[11] “What College is Like as a Single Mother,” The Atlantic, Jan. 16, 2018

[12] “These colleges turn low-income students into middle-class learners—but how?” Hechinger Report, Feb. 5, 2018

[13] “The Arkansas Career Pathways Initiative,” College Counts website

[14] “Students should be paid to study,” Huffington Post, Jan. 13, 2018

[15] One such example is the online program College for America, developed by Southern New Hampshire University.

Can Higher Education Solve America’s Economic Crisis?

Part 5: Is There a Disconnect between What America Needs and What Colleges Actually Do?

In my previous essay, I cited an op-ed by Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard University, in which he called for a doubling of the number of college graduates, in order to close the skills gap and produce the educated workers needed by today’s economy. Mr. Bok urged a massive expansion of public institutions (and their funding) to achieve this ambitious goal.

But it’s well known that almost all states have been moving in the opposite direction for many years. State appropriations for higher education have not only failed to keep pace with inflation but have declined significantly in most states, even as many of the public institutions have increased their enrollments.

How, then, can Mr. Bok’s call for many more college graduates be reconciled with the fiscal policy of the individual states — and how have public universities managed their affairs in the face of sharply reduced state appropriations?

It is common knowledge that, as a consequence of reduced state support, public institutions responded by raising their prices substantially. Over the last decade, in-state tuition increases at 50 public flagships, expressed in 2017 dollars, ranged from 3.9 percent (Ohio State) to 113 percent (Louisiana State). [1] Average annual tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities now range from just over $5,000 at the University of Wyoming to about $18,000 at Penn State and the University of New Hampshire. The public university with the highest price is the College of William & Mary, at $20,287. Room, board, books, out-of-state fees and incidentals are all in addition to these figures.

The quest for additional revenue

What isn’t as well known is the second strategy employed by public universities to recoup dollars lost from state appropriations and to enhance net income. That strategy involves luring students from other states (or countries) to attend as out-of-state students and charging them a substantial tuition premium. [2]

This quest for additional operating dollars creates a conflict of interest for public universities. Do they see serving the students of their state as their highest priority, or do they prioritize a robust bottom line? Or is it something else, such as national ranking or institutional reputation?

I randomly selected 25 flagship public institutions from all parts of the country and examined their enrollment patterns over the decade between 2006 (just before the Great Recession) and 2016. My analysis shows that most of these institutions prioritized growing revenue over increasing access for in-state students, especially for the vast number of low-income students who continue to be woefully under-served by higher education. Specifically:

  • In 2006, the average undergraduate enrollment at the 25 selected flagships was 22,054, of which 79 percent were in-state, 19 percent were out-of-state and 2 percent were international.
  • By contrast, in 2016, the average undergraduate enrollment at the 25 selected flagships had grown by more than 3,000 students to 25,165, of which 67 percent were in-state, 25 percent were out-of-state and 7 percent were international.
  • Despite overall growth, the lower percentage of in-state students meant that the average number of in-state undergraduates in 2016 actually fell to 16,962 from 17,430 in 2006.
  • Put another way, over the 10-year period, out-of-state students increased by 53 percent, international students by 423 percent and in-state students dropped by 3 percent.
  • Among the 25 universities, the largest increase of in-state students was 2,496 (Missouri); the largest decrease of in-state students was 6,058 (Purdue). Purdue also tripled its percentage of international students, to 18 percent.
  • One university (Alabama) grew by almost 13,000 students, but fewer than 200 of those were in-state. Alabama’s out-of-state population increased from just over 3,000 (20 percent of the total undergraduate population) in 2006 to more than 15,000 (54 percent) in 2016.
  • Only two universities (University of Florida and Florida State) among the 25 had fewer out-of-state students in 2016 than in 2006.
  • Over the decade, while there were some shifts in the national ranking of these 25 universities, as declared by U.S. News, there was no obvious correlation between national ranking and changes in in-state, out-of-state, international or total enrollment growth (or shrinkage).

What are we to conclude? Given the diverse nature of the enrollment changes over the past decade, it is obvious that the governors and legislatures of different states have not been of one mind regarding whether their flagship public universities should have the freedom to determine the size of the incoming class, the home state or country of the students they recruit or the amount of tuition they charge, as the universities considered the options available to them to resolve the budget problems created by reductions in their state allocations.

It is also true that campus leadership — individuals serving as presidents and trustees — inevitably changed during the past decade, so it is difficult to draw defensible conclusions linking actual enrollment outcomes with the motivation behind those outcomes.

Nevertheless, it seems apparent that identifying and securing more revenue was the primary concern for leaders at most public flagships over the past decade — even at the expense of limiting access to their prospective in-state students.

The motivation to prioritize revenue is understandable, but acting on that motivation, as many of the universities did, by very significantly increasing out-of-state enrollments, reinforces cynicism among the state taxpayers about how committed these public institutions really are in serving the public versus prioritizing their own self-interests.

The unintended consequences

Enrollment growth stemming largely from out-of-state students comes at the expense of other institutions, public and private alike. The out-of-state surcharges increase the total cost of attending these public institutions to the same level as that charged by many private institutions. These out-of-state students are not from families new to higher education or from traditionally under-represented groups. These students had always planned to attend college somewhere but were lured to an out-of-state flagship for reasons that one can only hope are educational in nature.

Additionally, in some states (e.g., Pennsylvania) the state colleges have seen significant declines in enrollment even as the flagship campus was growing — one class of state public institutions competing with another class of state public institutions.

Well, you might say, that’s just American free market competition at work. But when the taxpayers are asked to continue supporting a public university with a shrinking enrollment even as they are hearing demands for more support at another public university that is growing, it is easy to understand their skepticism regarding how the leaders of public universities are interpreting their mission.

And it gets worse.

Overlapping the decision by many flagship publics to emphasize the enrollment of high-paying out-of-state and international students (often with the consequence of reducing enrollment of lower-paying in-state students) is a general shift toward more affluent families and away from less affluent families. New America recently released a study [3] showing a significant enrollment increase at selective public universities over the past 20 years of students from the top 20 percent of family income —  and a corresponding drop in students from the bottom 40 percent of family income.

Consider the case of the College of William & Mary, the second-oldest higher education institution in the country (and a public university since 1906). More than half of its students are from families in the top 10 percent of income, and more than a third from the top 5 percent of family income. Conversely, only 12 percent are from families earning less than $65,000.

Or the University of Alabama, which, as we learned, added almost 13,000 undergraduates over the past decade, with fewer than 200 coming from in-state. Their merit scholarship program of more than $100 million (the largest of any public university in the country) allowed the institution to increase its share of students from families in the top 20 percent of income to 59 percent (up 13 percentage points in just 10 years) — and the University of Alabama is only one of a dozen public flagships that spends in excess of half its financial assistance dollars on non-need-based aid. Among all 50 states, Alabama ranks 44th in both educational level and per capita income. Wouldn’t you expect that Alabama’s flagship public university would be focused on improving the state’s economy by helping more state residents obtain a college degree and thereby earn a higher income?

In 1879, then-president James Angell said that the role of the University of Michigan would be to provide “an uncommon education for the common man” and thus be “an antidote to aristocracy.” But now more than 10 percent of its undergraduates are from families in the top 1 percent of family incomes, and only 16 percent are from the bottom 60 percent of all earners. The median income of the parents of students at Michigan is roughly three times the median income of Michigan families in general. [4]

What happened to “the common man?”

The University of Michigan successfully preserved its U.S. News top five national ranking among all public universities, but although it added almost 3,000 undergraduates between 2006 and 2016, it is actually serving fewer Michigan residents today than in 2006. You might have thought that, in a decade when the city of Detroit was struggling for survival, the focus of the state flagship public university would have been on the state’s needs. The state’s major newspaper certainly takes that view. [5]

Should a focus on the bottom line be deemed inappropriate?

Is a shift by certain well-known universities to serving more affluent families really a problem? Should we limit the opportunity these universities have to compensate for significant declines in state appropriations, or to compete with other institutions for status and rankings? Won’t the students who are being passed over enroll at other, albeit lower-ranked, universities and still complete their undergraduate degrees? Why shouldn’t these elite publics set a high bar for admission, if they can still meet their enrollment objectives?

These questions raise the critical question of the purpose of a public university. Is its purpose to become as “good” (meaning famous for its quality) as it can possibly be, or is its purpose to serve the public in its state to the best of its ability?

Three points:

  1. Public universities exist first and foremost to serve as “engines of mobility” — that is, to serve as the ladder up which climb those members of each generation with the requisite will and ability in order that they may reach their full potential. If we believe at all in social justice, then we must ensure that no student is denied a robust future because the ZIP code of his or her family created an insurmountable handicap. But we are failing to live up to our ideals. One recent commentator called our elite institutions “engines of inequality” because of how little they are currently doing to “cultivate our fabled American can-do spirit” by providing support for low-income students. [6]

 

  1. In the past, many universities established enviable records in effecting social mobility. Over half of the students from low-income families who attended an Ivy League school found themselves in the top 20 percent of all earners by the age of 32. [7] Public flagships have done almost as well — over a third of their low-income students moved to the top 20 percent. But the problem is the number of such students is tiny. Students from the top 1 percent of family incomes are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League school than are students from the bottom 20 percent of family incomes, and now the numbers of such students at flagship publics are declining when they should be rising.

 

  1. High-achieving, low-income students are almost as successful at top schools, be they public or private, as are students from wealthy families. Forcing them to attend less selective schools has a correspondingly negative effect on their graduation rates. Students are best served if their abilities roughly match those of their classmates — an argument for increasing, not decreasing, their numbers at elite universities.

In conclusion, in the absence of any coherent policy at either the federal or state level, both public and private universities act on their perceived need for increasing revenue (in part to make up for the loss of state appropriations, in the case of the public universities, and in part to be able to compete with their peers), and, to a lesser degree, to maintain (or improve) their national rankings. [8]

Regrettably, lost in their focus on revenue is their obligation to serve the public by making room for talented low-income students at their institutions.

It is unreasonable to assume that this situation will change for the better, absent state or federal policy designed to ensure greater opportunities for talented, low-income students.

But before we take up a consideration of possible initiatives at the state or federal level, we should consider the outcomes we most need to achieve. By starting with outcomes, we can work back to the policies we must create to achieve those outcomes.

Next week: Working backward from desired outcomes.

[1] “Flagship Universities with the Lowest Percentage Tuition Increases, 2007-17,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 17, 2017

[2] Interestingly, some of the elite private institutions followed a similar strategy, but for a different reason. Three Boston-area universities increased student diversity on campus by recruiting and admitting (presumably wealthy) international students, rather than by creating access for (presumably mostly low-income) minority students born in the USA. “Lost on Campus, as Colleges Look Abroad,” Boston Globe, Dec. 13, 2017

[3] Moving on Up? October 2017

[4] “In Trump country, a university confronts its skeptics,” Politico, Nov. 9, 2017

[5] “U-M socks away millions in endowment as families face rising tuition,” Detroit Free Press, Feb. 5, 2018

[6] “Poison Ivies,” The Baffler, Nov. 13, 2017

[7] Moving on Up? Ibid.

[8] “How U.S. News college rankings promote economic inequality on campus,” Politico, Sept. 13, 2017

Can Higher Education Solve America’s Economic Crisis?

Part 4: How Many American Adults Should Have a College Education — and How (and by Whom) Is That Question Answered?

A quick history of education

The history of education is fascinating, if only because it can be seen as evidence of how the powerful have repeatedly used limiting access to education as a weapon to deny rights and opportunities to the underclass.

Let me restate that point, because it is important: Historically, the expansion and enhancement of literacy rarely resulted from a deliberate policy of benevolence but instead occurred because at various times expanded literacy proved to be in the economic interests of the ruling class. We should never assume that the default position is increased literacy; to the contrary, the default position is continued ignorance of the underclass, and it is shocking to see confirmation of that even today. (Witness current efforts in Washington and in various states to focus public higher education on job preparation, at the expense of a traditional liberal arts education. [1])

In the Middle Ages, before Gutenberg and his printing press created mass-produced books, formal education was essentially lacking in most European countries — unless you were a monk. The capacity to read and write was essential for members of the clergy because they needed to be able to read the Mass or to copy manuscripts. But since the Mass was read to the congregation, it was not necessary (and, from the standpoint of the church, not necessarily desirable) for common folk to be able to read and write themselves. They needed to know only what God wanted of them, and the monks, who could read God’s word, were there to tell them. So no good could come from universal literacy.

The printing press, the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment all worked to change the thinking about literacy. And as the Industrial Age began to replace a largely agrarian economy, workers needed to be able to read, write and add and subtract numbers, in order to provide greater utility to the merchants and factory owners for whom they worked.

During the 19th century, free public education through grade six became a common goal in the United States and in many European countries, and the resulting more literate workforce drove economies upward. In America, the idea of a universal high school education began to spread during the latter years of the 19th century and into the early years of the 20th century. But as late as 1940, only half of American adults had earned a high school diploma.  (There are still almost 25 million adult Americans today — nearly 12 percent of all Americans over the age of 25 — who never finished high school.) [2]

Currently, high school completion rates nationally stand at 84 percent. But that means 16 percent of the class of 2017 failed to complete high school, and too many of those are entering a world without the skills needed to secure a well-paying job.

During the 1950s and 1960s, as it became increasingly clear that a far brighter economic future awaited those individuals who were able to attend and complete college, parents lobbied to do away with the two-track system in high school (wherein high-achieving students were placed on the “college” track and less successful students were put on the “clerical and trades” track), and instead to create a system that would prepare all students for college. (Whether the students actually chose to attend college was entirely up to them and their parents, but the argument was that they all should be prepared to attend college.)

This was an important change because, until this point, the expansion of educational opportunities was driven by the economic needs of the state or nation. Now we began to see an argument being made on behalf of the individual: it’s not enough that we have sufficient numbers of college graduates to meet our country’s economic needs. I want my child to have that opportunity.

Who should bear the cost of education?

Thus began the tension between the twin beneficiaries of expanded numbers of college graduates: society as a whole, because more college graduates meant increased tax revenues due to higher salaries; and the individual, because the college graduate clearly benefited economically and in so many other ways, in contrast to the person with just a high school education.

This tension has been at the heart of the debate over the last half century about the funding of higher education: Is it the responsibility of society at large, or should it be primarily the responsibility of the individual, and his or her parents?

College funding obligations aside, the problem with the goal of universal college preparation was that it resulted in too many high school students with a high school diploma in one hand and a college rejection letter in the other (or a letter of acceptance that required the student to do remedial work before being able to enroll in college-level courses). That is, a high school diploma and college readiness are not the same thing. Indeed, in some states more than half of students with a high school credential are not qualified to enroll in credit-bearing courses in college.

One answer to this problem has been to increase the size and number of community colleges, where students with little money and/or a poor K-12 education can begin their post-secondary work. For example, under the California Master Plan of 1960, students in the top eighth of their high school class were guaranteed a seat at one of the campuses of the University of California; students in the top third were admitted to a campus of the California State University; and everyone else was obliged to enroll in a community college. The idea was that students who completed their associate’s degree at the community college would then be offered the chance to transfer to a branch of the University of California or the California State University, where they could complete their undergraduate degree.

The problem in California and other states was that the “open admission” standard for community colleges — where anyone can enroll, even without having completed high school in some states — placed the community colleges in the position of having to remediate the relatively poor K-12 education received by a majority of their students. The students were, in effect, repeating work they ostensibly had been taught in high school but that they obviously had never learned. Even the California State University, which admitted only the top third of the high school graduating class, found itself with enormous numbers of students who required remediation before they could enroll in college mathematics or English courses.

The odds against completing a college degree rise dramatically if a student requires remediation. Six-year graduation rates at the California State University campuses vary considerably, but several have historically been below 40 percent, a figure that is sadly typical for many state colleges in other states as well.

Graduation rates at community colleges are far worse, in large measure because the percentage of college-ready students is even lower than in the state colleges. So three-year graduation rates (for a two-year associate’s degree) often fall below 20 percent, and most never finish their degree, let alone transfer to a four-year school.

How much education is enough?

The cost of providing an opportunity for a college education to students who did not receive a quality K-12 education, or who are “late bloomers,” is enormous. And yet the reason behind creating this opportunity remains as valid today as it was when the “two-track” system was abandoned: How else are people who are born poor, who attended failing K-12 schools, who never “caught fire” in high school (or whose fire was somehow extinguished) to have the chance to improve their lives?

Access to a college education is that chance.

Americans note with disapproval those countries that force all secondary students who aspire to attend college to take a qualifying exam, the outcome of which is determinative as to whether that student will progress to a well-paying job or be relegated to the ranks of the working poor. America is the land of opportunity! We believe in second chances! Everyone should have the right to a college education if they have the intelligence and the will to succeed!

But there remains the question of the cost of providing such opportunities.

Although places such as New York City and California experimented with free public higher education, it proved too expensive to be sustained. Our collective will to create additional capacity at colleges and universities waned as the tax bills arrived. Besides, we reasoned, since almost half the students who start college today don’t finish, surely that suggests that many college students shouldn’t have been in college in the first place. In fact, the argument goes, we would be better off with fewer college students, and we could do that by raising entrance standards and excluding those who are clearly not capable (or at least not ready now) of handling a college curriculum successfully.

The fallacy of this line of reasoning is that it assumes that our current educational paradigm, at all levels of education, is as good and as equitable as it possibly could be, so anyone failing to complete a particular level of education does so because of personal inadequacy (“poor learner”), not because of inferior or inadequate instruction.

This simple dichotomy ignores the reality that students are not automatons. Many people face crises while they are seeking an education: a family emergency to which they must devote their attention; food or housing insecurity; not enough money for child care, books, transportation or tuition; discrimination because of race, national origin, religion, gender or sexual orientation.

The point is: While it is convenient to blame the unsuccessful student for failing to be successful, much of the time that lack of success stems not from inferior intellect or a willingness to work hard but from limitations entirely beyond the ability of the student to control.

Moreover, if we are already educating as many people at the college level as are capable of learning at that level, how do we explain the fact that there are many countries in the world that are educating greater proportions of their citizenry than we are? (And be careful about suggesting that their educational standards are lower than ours.)

Is our country doing enough to create successful and equitable educational pathways for students, both at the K-12 and the college levels? How do we meet the economic needs of our country with our current model? Reducing the number of students in college will do nothing to resolve the problems business and industry have in finding a sufficient number of workers with the skills and abilities these businesses require.

Do we educate to meet social needs, or is it about personal development?

In a recent article, [3] Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard University, makes a persuasive argument for a dramatic increase in the production of college and university graduates. Mr. Bok proposes increasing institutional capacity and doubling the number of college graduates by pouring a great many more tax dollars into public institutions. Unfortunately, in today’s anti-tax world, that suggestion will surely fall on the deafest of ears.

And really what Mr. Bok’s proposal demonstrates is the utter futility of calls for action that are not truly directed at anyone in particular, that do not include a consideration of the steps that would need to be taken to achieve the results being called for, and that come from someone — and I say this with the greatest respect for Mr. Bok — who is not in a position to deliver any of the outcomes that he wishes to see (since he is no longer the president of a university).

Mr. Bok is by no means alone in this position. The Lumina Foundation, a foundation with considerable resources, has been calling for years for a significant increase in the production of college graduates (and would appear to have the opportunity to make investments in ideas that might well advance its agenda). And early in his first term, President Obama himself called for a near-doubling of the proportion of college graduates by 2026 (but he never made a strong push to create the political will to achieve this outcome).

Regrettably, we have seen only very modest gains in the percentage of American adults with a post-secondary degree (associate’s or bachelor’s) or high-value certificate over the past decade. We must conclude that calls for action, in and of themselves, have limited value in enhancing the level of higher education attained by adult Americans. We need a more comprehensive and inclusive campaign.

With that in mind, might there be ways by which we could make education more successful for more people, thereby lowering the cost per degree received? And if there are, shouldn’t we start using them?

We will examine these questions in upcoming postings to this blog site. First, however, let’s examine how well colleges and universities are doing with our current model of higher education.

Next week: Is there a disconnect between what America needs and what colleges actually do?

[1] “Mike Lee, Mia Love: It’s time to modernize higher education,” Deseret News, Dec. 15, 2017. (Mike Lee is the junior senator from Utah; Mia Love is a congresswoman from Utah. Together, they have introduced the HERO Act—Higher Education Reform Opportunity—in the Senate and House to “open doors to new education opportunities” that do not involve four-year degrees at traditional colleges and universities, but focus instead on massive online open courses—MOOCs—and certification exams that utilize “alternative accreditation paths.”)

[2] “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2015,” U.S. Census Bureau

[3] The Boston Globe, Sept. 9, 2017